A year ago, the offices of the Belfast Film Festival were razed to the ground. "We lost everything," says Michele Devlin, the festival's director. "I was sure there would be something we could salvage, but when I got to what was our office, it was 2ft-deep in ashes." The fire, which destroyed the art deco arcade that had housed the festival and 20 other organisations, is still being investigated by the police.
But the festival, in its fifth year, is presenting its biggest programme yet. "It's nearly a miracle given what happened," says Devlin. "But we thought, 'We just have to rise to this.'"
On offer are 130 films from 20 countries in 10 locations. "The city is quite fragmented so we have a venue in the east, which is a more Unionist area, one in the west, which is nationalist, one in the south, which is studenty and middle class," says Devlin. "We grew up in a divided society. People here are highly politicised and love opportunities to sit and talk about things, but also to talk about them in a more global context which I think film really lends itself to. That focus will continue to be a defining characteristic of the festival."
Given the importance of the documentary format to the event, the organisers are particularly pleased to welcome Albert Maysles, the cinema verité pioneer behind Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens and Muhammad and Larry, who will be interviewed in the Queen's Theatre and conduct a film masterclass.
A highlight is the new film by Lukas Moodysson (Together and Lilya 4-Ever). Terrorists: the Kids They Sentenced is a series of interviews with the anti-globalisation protesters at the G8 summit in Gothenberg in 2001, who found themselves being beaten by police, branded terrorists by the press and, in several cases, imprisoned. Entry is free.
This year's political focus is on racism. Devlin says: "Belfast has come under a spotlight for racist attacks in recent months... It is not news, but because of the Troubles, it hasn't been as visible." The keynote speaker is Darcus Howe, who will present his documentary Who You Callin' a Nigger?
The closing-night screening is Tarnation, Jonathan Caouette's debut film, made for $218 using iMovie. It uses a mélange of music, photographs and answering-machine messages to create a portrait of his troubled family and his mother's experiences with electric shock therapy. "This young man was a film fanatic," Devlin says. "He used film to sidestep the trauma of his life. It's a really brutal story but really positive. I've never seen anything like it."
The opening-night film, on the other hand, is a romantic comedy called The Boys and Girl from County Clare, about a ceilidh competition. "It's very light-hearted. There's lots of music. We need a bit of that!" laughs Devlin. "What we try to do is mixture of fun and entertainment, serious political stuff and educational stuff."
The Belfast Film Festival, various venues (028-9032 5913; www.belfastfilm festival.org) today to 16 AprilReuse content