The Belfast Film Festival reflects the complex, conflicted yet vibrant city where it is based.
Since it launched in 1995 as part of the West Belfast arts festival and then spun off in 2000 as a citywide event, it has used cinema to engage with the the social and political issues gripping Northern Ireland, notably the peace and reconciliation process between the Protestant and Catholic communities.
“We developed alongside the peace process,” says Michele Devlin, who started out as a volunteer but eventually quit her job as a lecturer to run the festival full time. “Our unique selling point is that we try to have a distinctive voice reflecting what’s going on in Belfast.”
The fest was co-founded by the author, playwright and former IRA hunger striker Laurence McKeown. In past years, it has devoted strands to divided societies, racism and Protestant identity in film, with a mix of documentaries, dramas and debates.
This year it has a section exploring policing and justice, with documentaries about Belfast’s Orange Parades, the U.S./Mexican border patrols and an Afghan police station. This comes just one month after the historic vote to transfer the responsibility for local policing back from the U.K. government to the Northern Irish parliament for the first time in 40 years.
There are also sessions devoted to “Memory, Truth and Transition” and “The Puzzles of Paisley,” about the recently retired Unionist politican Rev. Ian Paisley.
But it’s not all heavy and political. The point of peace, after all, is that you’re allowed to have fun. The fest is characterized by a spirit of playfulness. It organizes boat trips with on-board screenings of water-borne disaster movies — this year it’s “Deep Rising” and “Lake Placid.” There are drive-in movies, and a “Pretty in Pink Night,” with auds invited to dress up in their best ’80s gear to take in a John Hughes tribute.
The imagination that goes into its program is exemplified by its presentation of an episode from “The Prisoner” in the Church of Christ, Scientist. Why? Because Clough William-Ellis, who designed the church, was also the architect behind Portmeirion, the iconic Cornish village where “The Prisoner” was shot. The screening will be followed by a discussion about Belfast’s architectural heritage.
More conventionally, the fest spotlights new work from Northern Ireland’s small filmmaking community. “Some years you’d have been struggling to find any local films to screen, but this year we’ve got a few,” Devlin says.
These include “Empire,” a no-budget vampire thriller shot by local writer/director Michael McNulty over the past three years; Colin McIvor’s bakery comedy “Cupcake”; “Mickey B,” a version of “Macbeth” made with convicts in a maximum security prison; and “Five Day Shelter,” starring John Lynch, who also delivers an acting masterclass at the fest.
The opening film is “Triage,” an Irish co-production directed by Danis Tanovic and starring Colin Farrell. Fest closes with Francis Ford Copolla’s “Tetro.” Other international movies in a typically eclectic world cinema program include Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg,” Samuel Moaz’s “Lebanon,” Catherine Breillat’s “Bluebeard,” Philip Ridley’s “Heartless,” Paul Schrader’s “Adam Resurrected” and Naoyuki Tomomatso’s “Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl.”
Documentaries are central to the fest, with a competition named in honor of the Maysles brothers drawing work from all around the world. Contenders this year include “The First Movie,” in which Belfast-born cineaste Mark Cousins takes cinema for the first time to an Iraqi village.
The fest raises its £230,000 ($346,000) budget from ticket sales, grants and corporate sponsorship, although it received a late blow this year when title sponsor Jameson pulled out at the last minute. “We’ll have to cut back on guests, but apart from that there shouldn’t be a big impact,” Devlin says.
Devlin’s big treat this year is that she got to program a gala screening of her all-time favorite film, “The Battle of Algiers,” as part of the fest’s 10th anniversary celebrations.