Jason Gray visits Indonesia’s only international film festival and discovers that the element of surprise can be key for putting smaller festivals on the map.

The evening of the opening party for the 7th edition of Indonesia’s only international film festival, the affectionately-named Balinale (Oct 4-10), was held in the surfing paradise of Kuta. It goes without saying that Bali is a special place, but after years of attending festival opening parties, you come to expect a certain kind of event. There’s a template.

“Please go to the lobby where you’ll get in a Ferrari,” says the calm voice of Balinale producer Justine Nielsen over the phone. I laugh it off and head downstairs. To my surprise, a line of gleaming sports cars are jockeying in front of the hotel. Porsches and Ferraris in red, yellow and lime green.

Men in polo shirts emblazoned with car logos stand next to their ultra-glamorous wives in front of their steeds, posing for photos. I’m confused. Then I’m told that the festival has partnered with Bali’s “Supercar Owners’ Club” to provide rides for Balinale’s visiting actors and directors to arrive at the party in style, while the owners grab the attention of any person out of doors in Kuta.

“Get in,” one of the Balinale staff says to me, pointing at an orange Lamborghini Aventador. I squeeze into its cockpit-like confines. The driver is a friendly guy named Hardy who tells me a little about his 700 horsepower “baby.”

Once we’ve pulled out onto the main strip in Kuta, he waits for his buddy ahead to create some empty road for him. Lift-off. It’s only a few seconds but the G-force (both positive and negative) create an incredible rush. I feel like I’m inside a long camera lens doing a smash zoom.

After I catch my breath Hardy tells me he’s in commercial real estate, as are most of his club mates. Bali and Indonesia itself are undergoing big economic changes. With the recent Miss World pageant, a badly-needed new airport, the in-progress APEC (sans Obama) and an upcoming WTO conference the island’s profile is ascending and tourism now in rude health after terrorist attacks in 2005 and 2002.

The supercars pull into The Stones, which is part of the Marriott Autograph Collection. Opening late last year, the hotel was pleased to partner with Balinale for their opening night party. The film screenings didn’t begin until the following morning but the unexpected thrill sealed Balinale’s place in my memories for good. This was the first of two things I realized smaller festivals in particular need – an element of surprise.

At the party I meet Balinale co-founders Christine Hakim and Deborah Gabinetti, who hatched the idea for the festival during a plane trip from Jakarta as a way to promote Indonesian cinema. Internationally-known actress Hakim, who served on the Cannes jury in 2002 commented. “It’s a struggle. Unless Indonesian films are invited to overseas festivals it’s hard for them to be seen.”

While most fests would run screaming from a gargantuan, concurrent event like APEC, Balinale embraced the chance to take advantage of the heightened attention. “We approached APEC and made connections,” says Gabinetti. Balinale partnered with APEC to co-present its selection of recent Asian titles like The Grandmaster as well as Indonesian classics.

Balinale’s own line-up boasts an interesting mix of international and local features, shorts and documentaries. World premieres include Indonesian crime and politics melodrama 2014 and comedy Manusia Setengah Salmon; Michael Altman (son of Robert) brings his documentary American Songwriter; Korea is represented with Born To Sing and Miracle In Cell No. 7 Korea; Hua Tien-hao’s Taiwanese documentary Go Grandriders; and from the UK comes Richard Curtis’ About Time and Julian Mcdonnell’s Take Me To Pitcairn. Film workshops and charity activities are also part of Balinale’s DNA.

“It’s about cultural exchange and support for local and international filmmakers. We are a small but beautiful festival,” says Hakim proudly in her opening remarks. Nonetheless, Hakim and Gabinetti have worked hard to raise its profile, and that of the industry itself, to international standards.

In the early days, Balinale held screenings at restaurants and cafe’s, eventually moving to the island’s second multiplex, Cinema XXI Beachwalk, last year. “We launched the opening of their cinemas with Balinale. We were negotiating up to the last minute,” explains Gabinetti enthusiastically. Gabinetti is also director of the Bali Film Center, which provides assistance for visiting film productions. For her efforts Gabinetti has received credits on Oliver Stone’s Savages, Rob Cohen’s Alex Cross and Julia Roberts starrer Eat Pray Love.

After Gabinetti had a meeting with Plan B in 2008, the production of Eat Pray Love, partially set in the town of Ubud, came to Bali for location scouting while the festival was on (at Gabinetti’s insistence). During the following year’s edition the film was in production, finally premiering at the festival in 2010. Balinale also reaches out to Indonesian distributors to launch mainstream films such as this year’s Don Jon and aforementioned About Time.

Balinale’s proactive approach to growth clearly illustrates the second of two things that festivals organizers need – bartering skills. With the world’s festival calendar bursting at the seams, securing funding is only going to get more difficult, particularly for emerging and specialized fests.

Modestly budgeted films can impress with surprisingly high production values through the right connections and relationships. Why not film festivals?

Jason Gray is a correspondent for Screen International