Belfast Film Festival favourites
David Roy speaks to Belfast Film Festival programmer Stephen Hackett about bringing 130 diverse film events to the city over 11 days
THE 17th Belfast Film Festival (BFF) gets underway on March 30 with a 'gala screening' of comedy spoof Mindhorn, starring Mighty Boosh man Julian Barratt as a washed-up actor whose titular bionic 1980's TV detective had the ability to literally 'see the truth'.
This special preview screening of the critically acclaimed Sean Foley-directed film, not on general release until May, is just one of the big attractions at this year's festival.
"It's very good – if you like your Alan Partridge, I think you'll like Mindhorn," enthuses Stephen Hackett, BFF's regular festival programmer.
"A lot of British comedies which have been rolled out over the past few years have been very poor, but this one stands up with the best of them."
Mindhorn, which will be attended by Foley and selected cast members, is just one of 130 events taking place over 11 days during the Festival, now in its 17th year.
"We've kind of stayed level with last year in terms of the amount of events we have," comments Hackett on the festival's evolution, "but we're doing a lot less 'out of cinema' events this time.
"That's because we've developed a summer programme over the last few years to do those sort of bigger, outdoor events when they should be done – which is when the weather is better.
"This time around we just thought we'd concentrate on cinema-based activity during the Festival itself."
By the time its full programme was launched last week, the BFF had already scored a major publicity coup by announcing its special guest for 2017, US actor John Cusack.
Cue 'Cusacksteria': It turns out that the star of High Fidelity, Being John Malkovitch, Con Air and Say Anything has a huge hardcore fanbase in the north, many of whom got very upset when tickets for his special 'In Conversation' event at Movie House Dublin Road on March 31 sold-out in about a nanosecond.
Q&A screenings for the Cuse's music-fuelled hit High-Fidelity and acclaimed but lesser-known 'Hitler as a young artist' drama Max were duly added for April 1 (at QFT Belfast and Strand Arts Centre respectively), which also sold-out nearly instantaneously.
There followed much virtual wailing and gnashing of teeth across various online platforms by those who missed out on the chance for an audience with the Irish American actor/producer/writer/heart-throb, who will receive the Festival's Realta award for his 'outstanding contribution to cinema'.
"It's a bit nuts," says Hackett, who has also programmed non-Cusack-attended (and thus not yet sold-out) screenings of Say Anything on April 5 and Grosse Pointe Blank on April 8 at Strand Arts Centre.
"I mean, we were kind of half expecting him to be popular, but the slightly hysterical level of response has been scary at times."
"He was on a list (of potential guests) that we'd had for a while and we tried to get him a few years ago as well. I think his mum has some sort of connection to Northern Ireland or something, so I think that definitely greased the wheels a bit."
You'd best save any complaints about the movie selections for the Cusack Q&As, as they were chosen by the man himself – those clamouring for deeper insight into the crazed action dramatics of Con Air will just have to wait for the Cusack & Cage commentary-enhanced 50th anniversary digital implant edition.
"I originally suggested a Q&A for Being John Malkovitch, but I think he said he'd prefer to do 'one of my more serious roles'," says Hackett.
Among the programmer's personal highlights from this year's festival are poetic and political Thai film By The Time It Gets Dark (March 31, QFT), writer/director Ivan Sen's Aussie 'Outback noir' Goldstone (April 5, QFT), the dreamy, twisted two-handed road movie Always Shine (April 5, QFT) starring Halt and Catch Fire's Mackenzie Davis and Caitlin Fitzgerald, and Aki Kaurismaki's award-winning new comedy drama The Other Side of Hope (April 2, QFT).
"I always gravitate towards the documentary, experimental and completely bonkers stuff," Hackett tells me of his own personal tastes, listing some factually-based highlights including The Peacemaker (April 6, Movie House), the story of Dublin-born deal-broker Padraig O'Malley, Raoul Peck's Oscar-nominated doc I Am Not Your Negro (April 4, QFT) and Contemporary Color (April 1, QFT), which records Talking Heads man David Byrne's innovative 2015 musical extravaganza featuring St Vincent, Nelly Furtado, Ad-Rock, TuneYards and others.
As for 'completely bonkers stuff, low budget faux-VHS horror pastiche Dude Bro Party Massacre III (April 1, QFT with directors Tomm Jacobsen and Michael Rousselet in attendance) ticks that box nicely.
"I have a sort of soft spot for really bad films, but this one is quite knowing about what it's taking the hand out of," he says.
"It's quite clever about the way it pastiches those 80s slasher movies, so if
you're a fan of those you'll appreciate the comedy value even more."
However, it's not the Stephen Hackett Film Festival – and the BFF man is just as quick to select a worthy highlight from the more mainstream side of the programme for your consideration.
"I wouldn't really be a big fan of period drama, but something like A Quiet Passion, the new Terence Davies film (March 31, QFT), is great – I can recognise the quality of it," says Hackett.
This year's BFF programme also includes quirkier film events like the 'themed screening' I Demand to Have Some Booze: 30 Years of Withnail and I (March 31, The Black Box) and a 'live read' of A Fish Called Wanda (April 1, The Black Box) featuring a local cast.
Homegrown film-making talent is well represented elsewhere too: Belfast audiences will get their first look at Northern Ireland-shot revenge thriller Bad Day For The Cut (April 9, Movie House) during the festival.
From Co Tyrone-based director Chris Baugh and producer/writer Brendan Mullin, the gritty film received rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.
"It's sometimes hit-and-miss with local films," admits Hackett.
"But this is definitely a hit – I think it's one of the best thrillers I've seen produced locally.
"It's made on a modest budget, but you wouldn't know that – the screenplay and the performances are fantastic, especially the central performance by Nigel O'Neill.
"It's not easy to get into Sundance, so that's kind of proved it's value as well. Not many films made locally would get to that level or gain such an international profile, which is great for the guys who made it.
"If you like your Tyrone farmer revenge thrillers – and who doesn't? – Bad Day For The Cut is the film for you."
:: Belfast Film Festival runs from March 30 until April 9, full programme and ticket details available online at Belfastfilmfestival.org.