Five years ago, the Auckland International Film Festival opened with The Motorcyle Diaries, a film which depicted the early years of Che Guevara, long before he became the revolutionary and 20th Century icon forever portrayed as a two-dimensional trademark of rebel chic.

If that was the prequel, this year's festival programme has the main act.

The two-part biopic Che - subtitled The Argentine and Guerilla and covering the Cuban campaign, then the events leading to Guevara's eventual demise in Bolivia respectively - will screen as one four hour-plus movie. Which is quite a lot of movie in these recessionary times.

It does come with a 15-minute intermission - just enough time for a coffee, a cigar or to dash next door to buy a beret.

But yes, at 262 minutes it's still the most dauntingly long film of the 130-plus features in this year's programme.

But the film directed by the prolific and versatile Steven Soderbergh and starring Benicio Del Toro as Guevara is but one of this year's events-within-the-event. The sort that reminds that the annual film festival is about something more than just going to the movies.

The festival's first night is the opening gala featuring an as-yet-unnamed film which may or may not have a local connection.

But while the number of local productions in the programme is down after last year's flood, this festival does have the New Zealand premiere of The Strength of Water, Armagan Ballantyne's debut feature set in the Hokianga and from a script by playwright Briar Grace-Smith which is screening after featuring at the Berlin and Rotterdam Film Festivals.

The Hokianga also features in the documentary retrospective tribute to the late pioneering Maori filmmaker Barry Barclay, which includes his work with John O'Shea and Michael King on groundbreaking 1970s television series Tangata Whenua. As well, Graeme Tuckett's new doco on Barclay includes interviews recorded shortly before his death early last year.

That's called The Camera on the Shore which might have been an alternative title to Land of the Long White Cloud, another film set in the Northland backblocks.

Long White Cloud is a look at the annual Ninety Mile Beach Snapper Classic fishing contest as caught by Florian Habicht, the man who already showed his love for his quirky Far North fellow locals in his great Kaikohe Demolition.

A movie about surfcasting isn't the only flick in this year's fest that might draw the sportsbloke crowd - Looking for Eric stars football great Eric Cantona as himself as he becomes a magically inspiring figure to a depressed Mancunian postman, also named Eric. One of this year's Cannes competition contenders, it's directed by Ken Loach who might be dropping his earnest social-realist guard.

While recent events in his life may have added another tragic chapter to his life, the documentary Tyson has been widely acclaimed for what the disgraced former world heavyweight boxing champ reveals about himself.

The fashion industry may be about to come under some ridicule in Sacha Baron Cohen's Bruno - which opens the same day as the Auckland festival.

But the programme is restoring some balance with three major fashion-inspired titles. Coco Before Chanel has Audrey Tatou in the biopic of the designer who helped define 20th Century French chic.

Doco The September Issue goes behind the scenes of Vogue magazine as it produces its most important issue of the year under the steely gaze of legendary editor Anna Wintour, while Valentino: The Last Emperor covers the couturier's final two years before his 2007 retirement.

And talking of Baron Cohen, it seems that Kazakhstan, which he so cruelly lampooned in Borat, is now enjoying its time in the celluloid sun.

The former Soviet republic features in Paper Soldier, a film about the 1960s Soviet space programme, as well as Wild Field and Tulpan, both of which show off the country's wide-horizon cinematic landscapes to good effect.

Che isn't the only film reflecting on when political upheaval turns deadly. The festival will be the second screening, after the Melbourne Film Festival premiere, of Bilbao, Australian director Robert Connolly's portrayal of what happened to five television journalists - including New Zealander Gary Cunningham - who died during the 1975 Indonesian invasion of East Timor.

Likewise, The Baader Meinhof Complex, based on the book of recent Writers Festival visitor Stefan Aust, is a historical thriller about the terrorism of Germany's Red Army Faction which repeatedly attacked and killed figures among the country's establishment in the 60s and 70s.

The film was Germany's entry into this year's Best Foreign Language Oscar - the winner, Japan's Departures, about a redundant cellist who reinvents himself as an undertaker is also screening.

Japan is also heavily represented in the festival's animation section with new films by the legendary Miyazaki Hayao (Ponyo, a riff on Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid) and anime master Oshii Mamoru (The Sky Crawlers - sci-fi dogfight action with lashings of philosophy). Among the other major Asian titles of the festival is Red Cliff, the historical war epic directed by action master John Woo, which is also China's most expensive movie.

Among other high-profile directors who are festival regulars with new works showing are Jim Jarmusch (The Limits of Control), Stephen Frears (Cheri which reunites him with his Dangerous Liaisons star Michelle Pfeiffer), and Sam Raimi (whose return to horror in Drag Me to Hell is a highlight of the festival's "Incredibly Strange" subsection)

The festival's music section is as robust as ever. Highlights include The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector, capturing the legendary oddball producer and convicted murderer in an interview during his first trial, and It Might Get Loud in which Jimmy Page, Jack White and U2's The Edge celebrate the power and history of the electric guitar while trading the occasional riff.

And music is to the fore in one of the festival's biggest events-within-the-event - the screening of the Charlie Chaplin 1925 silent classic The Gold Rush with live musical backing of the Chaplin-composed score from the Auckland Philharmonia, on the festival's final Sunday.

Opening night

The festival is keeping the title of the opening night film to itself until its official programme launch next week. Best guess? Jane Campion's Bright Star, fresh from its apperance in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. The film about the short life of 19th century romantic poet John Keats would seem to have a winning combo of local connection and wide arthouse appeal to launch the event.

Also, Campion's early works like Sweetie and An Angel at My Table had the festival as local launching pads. This year's programme has a couple of other Cannes contenders including Ken Loach's Searching for Eric and Pedro Almodovar's Broken Embraces which will be this year's closing night film.

Other guess? The Vitner's Luck - Niki Caro's adpatation of the Elizabth Knox novel which is due for release later this year.

What: The New Zealand International Film Festival
When: Auckland July 9 to 26; Wellington July 17 to August 2, other regions to follow
Where: In Auckland in the city at the Civic, SkyCity Queen St SkyCity Theatre, Academy Cinema with some screenings also at the Bridgeway Northcote, Lido Epsom, Hoyts Sylvia Park and SkyCity Albany
Programme: Out Wednesday, June 17
Bookings: via Ticketek from Friday, June 19