Belfast Film Festival director Michele Devlin on staging 20th anniversary event during Covid-19

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ORGANISING major events like the Belfast Film Festival (BFF) and its documentaries-orientated offshoot Docs Ireland must be enormously challenging even under ‘normal’ circumstances – but with 2020 being anything but normal, BFF director Michele Devlin and her team are currently having to work extra hard to deliver the high standards patrons have come to expect from the Festival over the past 20 years.

With both the 20th anniversary edition of BFF and the second year of Docs Ireland having already been postponed from their original schedules back in March and June respectively, Devlin and co have been proceeding with preparations for their rescheduled events this month with cautious optimism – and a selection of back-up plans in place should the virus foul things up yet again.

An all-online Docs Ireland programme went live on Monday and runs until November 14, with the Belfast Film Festival following from November 16 to 28 and hopefully featuring a selection of live events and cinema screenings.

“We’re doing well,” Devlin told me late last week. “The only kind of outstanding thing for us is that we’re still hoping to do some in-person events – but if the executive announces that cinemas are staying closed, we’ll have to go to plan B for those ones.

“We’ve been circumspect about it because since the beginning [of the pandemic] when we had to cancel, we did start looking at online options. I suppose we’ve just tried to remain as positive and proactive around delivery as possible.”

Indeed, with the executive still to make a call on whether cinemas can reopen as planned on November 13 at time of press, film fans can rest assured that contingencies are in place to ensure BFF’s 20th anniversary year will still be something to celebrate.

Devlin comments: “We’ve planned to be in cinemas for about 10 of our events if cinemas are open – and if they close we’ve got a back-up plan to make them available online. So we’re confident and organised in that way.

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“We actually delivered our Short Film Competition as an online event in April. We would normally have 500 or 600 people in QFT watching those, but this time we had 5,000 people watching them – and it was people from all over Ireland, the UK and then maybe 5 per cent internationally. So I think it’s a model we will probably repeat in some way next year.”




Belfast Film Festival director Michele Devlin with film-makers Brendan Mullin, Chris Baugh, Alison Millar and Cathy Brady

On the effectiveness of closing cinemas as a public health measure while comparable spaces such as churches remain open, the BFF director adds: “To be honest, I was gutted when cinemas were closed, because they are very safe. There have not been any cases of outbreaks in cinemas around the world.

“I know some of the cinema owners here have been lobbying very strongly [for reopening] in Stormont. The way I look at it is that cinemas are sort of like churches, practically and also in the sense that people really need them during these difficult times. In fact, they’re probably even safer than churches, so I really think closing them in the first place was ridiculous.

“Just after lockdown, I took my young daughter to see Trolls World Tour at the Movie House. There were about 100 people in the cinema, all in their little family groups, and I felt very safe while we were there.”

As mentioned, the festival’s Docs Ireland strand launched on Monday. This year’s programme focuses on Irish-made films and runs right through this week until Saturday with a fully online programme of documentaries and special events.




The 8th

Highlights include; The 8th from directors Aideen Kane, Lucy Kennedy and Maeve O’Boyle, about the successful campaign to repeal Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion; The Sheriff by Grace Sweeney, an account of a recent US law enforcement election which illustrates the broader divides in American politics and society; the directorial debut of acclaimed documentary producer Trevor Birney (No Stone Unturned, Bobby Sands: 66 Days) with The Dakota Entrapment Tapes; a preview and discussion of the new Lyra McKee documentary, Ceasefire Baby, with director Alison Millar; a preview of the new documentary about Belfast priest Father Des Wilson, Fr Des – The People’s Priest, by Vincent Kinnaird; and Martin McGuinness: I Fought, I Made Peace, I Made Politics from director Sonia Nic Giolla Easbuig, which will screen online as part of the main Belfast Film Festival on November 25 in partnership with the Cork and Foyle Film Festivals.

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“That’s a very interesting piece of work because it’s probably an equal balance of personal and political,” says the BFF director of the documentary about the life and work of the former IRA man and deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, who died in 2017.

“There’s people like David Trimble, Bill Clinton and Ian Paisley Jr in it. There was actually a delay in us getting the finished film because Martin’s brother agreed to do a last-minute interview for it.”

Highlights of the 20th Belfast Film Festival programme include Wildfire, a locally set drama from Newry director Cathy Brady and starring the late Nika McGuigan, horror comedy Boys From County Hell, the second feature from Co Tyrone film-making duo Chris Baugh and Brendan Mullin (Bad Day For The Cut) and the premiere of Belfast director Michael MacBroom’s new drama Welcome To Northern Ireland starring former Green Party leader Steven Agnew.




Wildfire

There are also plenty of special events on offer, including; Co Down actor Michael Smiley sharing his Desert Island Flicks; 23 Frames: A visual journey through the work of Edgar Wright featuring the acclaimed English director in conversation with BFF chair Mark Cousins; Cari Beauchamp, award-winning author of Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and The Powerful Women of Early Hollywood, in conversation with Mark Cousins; and legendary film journalist Kim Newman discussing the history of horror films with Robert JE Simpson.

And, while we’re on the subject of horror, it seems even confirmed horror sceptic Michele Devlin found herself enjoying Boys From County Hell.

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“It’s really brilliant,” enthuses Devlin. “I’m not a horror fan but this is more comedy than horror. It made me laugh out loud a lot, and Nigel O’Neill [the star of Bad Day For the Cut] is just fabulous in it too.”




Boys From County Hell

According to the Festival director, the plan for marking the Belfast Film Festival’s 20th birthday has always centred on how the event has fostered local film-making talent over the years.

“We have a big focus on looking back at the growth of local talent,” Devlin tells me. “When you look back at how little money we had at the beginning, we really had big ideas and a small budget – but because we had a lot of in-house design and technical talent, we always looked a lot richer than we were.”

“For our 20th launch event, we did a photo with 20 film-making teams which was really to highlight all these people we helped to bring along who are now bringing local stories to cinemas around the world.”

Here’s to another 20 years of rich success.

:: Docs Ireland runs until November 14, Belfast Film Festival runs from November 16 to 28. Full festival programmes and tickets available via Belfastfilmfestival.org

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