Navigate the 2011 Belfast Film Festival

Too many screenings? Don't know where to start? Gareth Mulvenna provides a managable path through this year's programme

It has become an important annual event. Even a cursory glance through the latest Belfast Film Festival programme provides an idea of the dizzying array of screenings on offer. The welcome difficulty that comes with such a glut of quality is how best to navigate the excellent fare over the relatively short period of time that the festival is active.

This year the organisers have hand-picked an eclectic roster. A glance over the BFF website shows categories ranging from timeless celluloid classics and premieres of new Irish films to BBC television drama curios set in 1970s and 80s Northern Ireland, given reprieve from the dusty archives.

Festival organisers have also embraced the world of digital content this year. On their dedicated podcast preview page you will find a debate on a classic Dr Who screening, an interview with Killing Bono actor Martin McCann, Terry George's take on Film vs TV and comic book artist and filmmaker Will Simpson's argument for The Greatest Ever Western.

For those searching for highlights, however, perhaps a few suggestions are in order. The 11th festival was launched by Belfast-born director Terry George and Northern Irish actor Martin McCann, and it is McCann’s turn as a young Paul Hewson (Bono) in the premiere of Nick Hamm’s Killing Bono that kicks proceedings off on March 31 at the Dublin Road Cinema.

Funded by Northern Ireland Screen, Killing Bono was shot in Belfast and will surely draw large crowds on its first official showing in Northern Ireland. It is an obvious starting point for all festival-goers.

On Friday evening (April 1) the festival gets musical with a unique screening of Upside Down: The Creation Records Story, followed by a Q&A session with the label’s one-time impresario, Alan McGee, who gave breaks to indie luminaries such as My Bloody Valentine, Teenage Fanclub and, most famously of all, Oasis.

Thrills are guaranteed for all insomniacs on Saturday as the Waterfront Hall plays host to a Horror All-Nighter – a veritable cornucopia of scary slasher flicks. The Portmanteau should get the blood flowing, and promises ‘all killer and no filler’ as the best bits are gleaned from schlock anthologies such as Black Sabbath and Tales From the Crypt.

For the more cerebral filmgoer, BBC Broadcasting House will be the venue for a screening of Ken Loach's classic 1969 television play The Big Flame, a proto-documentary that explores political life on the Liverpool docks.

This is part of the festival’s 'TV Eye' category, where forgotten televisual gems are being shown for free. Connoisseurs of Northern Irish politics and culture should also be interested in The Last Window Cleaner, The Long March, The Legion Hall Bombing and Gates of Gold – Play For Today, rarities that cover Northern Ireland's descent into full-scale conflict.

Treacle Jr. is one to look out for at the start of the festival’s first full week proper. Aidan Gillen and Tom Fisher bond over a kitten in a meditation on need and rejection that has been described as mixing 'the tender treatment of dysfunction of Rain Man with the bleak urban redemption of The Fisher King'.

However, the Belfast Film Festival isn’t all about soul-searching. On April 7 The John Hewitt Bar is the venue for the 10th Pong Championship. This tongue-in-cheek event brings together 32 competitors to battle it out to a backdrop of 'live commentary, psychological humiliation and historical analysis'. Should be fun.

It is the festival’s ability to throw new light on old classics that often makes it so attractive - never more so than with Sing-A-Long-a-Wickerman in the Black Box. The concept is so tantalisingly simple that it’s a wonder no one thought of it before David Bramwell and Eliza Skelton. ‘Pagan hymn books’ are provided to encourage lusty singing by enthusiasts of Robin Hardy’s musical masterpiece in anticipation of the witching hour, when the horror classic will be shown in all its vivid colour.

For those of a slightly more glamorous disposition there is an opportunity to eschew the earthy high-jinks of the Black Box on April 10, when the rooftop of the Merchant Hotel will provide a somewhat foxy setting for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – a screening that will undoubtedly see Marilyn Monroe put in the shade once and for all as the festival pays a poignant tribute to the irresistible Jane Russell.

Wherever the festival takes you – from the QFT to the Lagan Boat, from the Merchant Hotel Rooftop to the Spectrum Centre on the Shankill Road – there is much to be unearthed both in the city and on the big screen. Go and explore both.