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PREVIEW: Bradford Int'l Film Festival
Stephen Dalton , March 25th, 2014 12:36

Native Yorkshireman and tQ film correspondent Stephen Dalton picks out the highlights of the 20th BIFF, which begins this Thursday

Spring is lurking just around the corner, which for me means an annual pilgrimage back to my ancestral homeland in the People's Republic of Yorkshire. If you like the sound of a festival where minimalist electronica meets mumblecore indie drama, where Marxist cultural theory collides with deadpan northern sarcasm, and where post-punk legends trade war stories in award-winning curry houses, then you probably already know about Bradford International Film Festival. And if you don't, you should.

Celebrating its 20th edition this year, BIFF is a film festival for both hardcore connoisseurs and curious casual fans, with a programme stretching from just left of mainstream to the cultish fringes. The main screening hub is the National Media Museum, a handsome modernist culture-bunker in the city centre, but with related events scattered across various nearby venues. Nestled in the rolling Pennine foothills west of Leeds, Bradford has long punched above its weight as a cinematic location for northern kitchen-sink dramas, from Billy Liar and Room At The Top to later Brit-grit classics, like Rita, Sue And Bob Too. Five years ago, it was made the first ever UNESCO City of Film.

Homegrown Yorkshire film-making is always part of the BIFF menu, but Bradford has a multicultural population and a global agenda. This year's highlights include pre-release screenings of The Lunchbox, Ritesh Batra's hugely charming romantic fable set in the chaotic mega-sprawl of Mumbai, and Jeremy Saulnier's darkly comic Deep South bloodbath Blue Ruin, which has some of the gothic humour of a vintage Coen brothers pulp-noir. Another strong draw will be the closing night film Locke, an intimate road-movie psycho-thriller starring Tom Hardy, which marks the directing debut of Steven Knight, screenwriter of Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises.

One of the festival's big coups is an advance screening of Calvary, the powerful new black comedy from Irish writer-director John Michael McDonagh, who made a critical splash with his 2011 debut The Guard. McDonagh's second feature again stars Brendan Gleeson, this time playing a turbulent priest in small-town Sligo who takes on personal responsibility for the horrendous history of paedophile abuse in the Catholic Church. Co-starring Chris O'Dowd, Dylan Moran and Kelly Reilly, Calvary has all the existential gravitas and moral weight of a classic revenge western, but spiked with lashings of macabre humour. It plays in Bradford following rave reviews in Sundance and Berlin.

Also worth catching is the acutely observed low-budget domestic drama Exhibition, written and directed by Joanna Hogg of Archipelago fame. In an inspired piece of screen alchemy, Hogg casts former Slits guitarist Viv Albertine and visual artist Liam Gillick as a middle-aged bohemian couple preparing to leave their strikingly modernist London home. The pair's experiences as real-life artists clearly inform their on-screen characters, lending an electric crackle of authenticity to their brittle conversations and fraught sexual negotiations.

But BIFF is more than just a platform for upcoming commercial releases. Occult esoterica and fringe events are a crucial part of the mix, with a late-night left-field horror strand called Bradford After Dark, plus a bespoke selection of low-budget, uncompromising, truly independent works. This year's programme includes both a retrospective and personal appearance by the veteran American auteur James Benning, whose avant-garde documentaries straddle the line between cinema and abstract art, plus a sidebar selection from the prolific Japanese film noir director Yoshitarō Nomura, which travels to London's ICA later in April.

Another highlight among the late-night screenings will be Randy Moore's surreal oddity Escape From Tomorrow, a David Lynch-style nightmare headfuck which was shot using illicit guerrilla methods inside Disneyland and Disney World. There are also two terrific first-time features about school violence: in his grimly funny mockumentary The Dirties, Canadian actor-director Matt Johnson finds savage humour in a Columbine-style student massacre, while the young Slovenian director Rok Bicek's Class Enemy tracks a school's slide from teen suicide to explosive anarchy.

Guest interviews and live music events are also Bradford essentials. This year will see career-spanning talks with director Sally Potter, actor Brian Cox and musician turned film-maker Richard Jobson. Fellow post-punk veteran Graham "Jilted John" Fellows is also appearing in his comedy guise as John Shuttleworth to host a screening of his 2006 documentary It's Nice Up North, directed by photographer Martin Parr.

Local hero Bill Nelson, formerly of Wakefield proto-punk glam-rockers Be-Bop Deluxe, is coming to Bradford to introduce Velorama, a montage of archive cycling footage which he has scored. Film critic and broadcaster Mark Kermode's neo-skiffle band The Dodge Brothers, who are BIFF regulars, and the analogue electronic trio Metamono will also both be playing live to accompany vintage films from the silent era.

Bradford does not have the glamour and glitz of Cannes, Venice or Sundance. But nor does it have their long queues, steep prices and heavily commercialised agenda. In music festival terms, BIFF is more Supersonic or All Tomorrow's Parties than Glastonbury or Reading. Offering an all-you-can-eat banquet of cult film, experimental music and gruff Yorkshire hospitality, the curry capital of Britain awaits your visit.

BIFF runs from March 27 to April 6; have a look at the full schedule here. Calvary, The Lunchbox, Exhibition and Locke are all released in April, Blue Ruin opens in May and the ICA's Yoshitarō Nomura season begins on April 18