Edinburgh International Film Festival 2008
New date, new momentum? Trevor Johnston reports on the high points and special guests at the (now midsummer) Edinburgh International Film Festival
There are actually two cities called Edinburgh. One is the beautiful but rather placid place that goes about its business 11 months of the year; the other is the cultural maelstrom that is August’s festival frenzy, when visitors expand the population several times over. For its sixty-second incarnation, the 2008 Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) took a leap from one to the other, hoping that its new June dates would give it a stand-alone profile denied by the city’s jam-packed August calendar. The worry, though, was that it might be a big ask to rely on deep-pocketed local film-lovers to keep those vital box-office figures in continuing rude health.
From a London perspective, it’s only too easy to greet all this with a shrug, but Edinburgh is a pretty significant part of the micro-organism of British film. Artistic director Hannah McGill’s selections continue its tradition of providing an annual health check for homegrown production, while also zeroing in on international discoveries which then (like last year’s charming ‘In Search of a Midnight Kiss’) filter back into UK distribution. In March the UK Film Council signalled its appreciation of the EIFF’s importance for industry and audiences alike with a £1.8 million funding announcement spread over three years, and certainly the professional-oriented side of the EIFF has never looked healthier, with myriad workshops and presentations allowing filmmakers plenty of pause for cogitation and discussion.
Positive vibes aside, though, were the films themselves likely to get 2008’s new chapter off to the start the organisers were hoping for? Well, after a glam but artistically underwhelming opening with the Keira and Sienna show, ‘The Edge of Love’, and notable exceptions aside, it’s been a steady but hardly vintage year. The British films in general showed more enterprise than accomplishment, as illustrated by Kenny Glenaan’s ‘Summer’, a sincere chronicle of failed lives coming to terms with the vibrant memories of errant youth, which was beautifully acted by Robert Carlyle (a worthy winner of an acting award), but wholly four-square and predictable in its story development.
Duane Hopkins’s debut, ‘Better Things’, brought a heightened sense of poetry to its astringent portrait of junkies in the Cotswolds, yet at the cost of some very stilted storytelling in foregrounding its themes of love and loss. A more successful integration of form and meaning came with Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor’s UK-Irish co-production, ‘Helen’, in which a hotel worker’s horizons expand when she takes part in a reconstruction of a missing girl’s movements, all shaped in widescreen compositions and tracking shots standing comparison with Angelopoulos or Antonioni.
Less ambitious, but definitely delivering the goods, was Olly Blackburn’s ‘Donkey Punch’, a neatly turned shocker in which some serious partying on a borrowed yacht in the Med goes bloodily wrong, but Danny Huston and his Michael Powell Award jury voted with their hearts for Shane Meadows’s latest, ‘Somers Town’, a touching saga of teenage friendship set against the backdrop of Polish workers constructing the St Pancras Eurostar terminal. A lovely film: even at a slight 75 minutes, you could hardly begrudge Meadows the silverware.
The same could also be said of Edinburgh’s new Documentary Award for Werner Herzog’s ‘Encounters at the End of the World’, a quizzical look at the people on an Antarctic research station which is as spookily beautiful and riotously entertaining as anything he’s ever done, though, by contrast the decision to hand Glasgow-born Marianna Palka the Skillset New Directors Award for her Sundance-sourced indie flick, ‘Good Dick’ – a clogged, obvious dysfunctional two-hander – verged on the inexplicable. A more worthy winner would have been Elissa Down’s Aussie first feature, ‘The Black Balloon’, a teen rites-of-passage pic that details with moving honesty what it’s like to grow up with an autistic sibling. That was certainly a highlight, as was a buoyant Terence Davies regaling us with a slew of zingy one-liners after a screening of his deeply felt portrait of his native Liverpool, ‘Of Time and the City’.
It was characteristic of the EIFF’s reach that the programme also included Pixar’s latest, ‘Wall-E’, but since this tale of a forlorn robot looking for love in an inhospitable universe is a film of such emotional enchantment, technical mastery and intellectual nourishment that genius isn’t too strong a word, it was eminently understandable to see it there.
Still, that said, the moment of the festival, especially for anyone who grew up in thrall to Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion wizardry, was the chance to encounter this sprightly 88-year-old – when he took out one of the original skeleton warriors from the Hydra’s teeth sequence in ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ an entire cinema gasped and your correspondent burst into tears.
One might imagine a similar response from a relieved McGill to the box-office figures showing a 5 per cent rise compared to 2007, with significant increases too in delegate numbers. After all the uncertainty of the date change, it looks like the sweat is over. Now the real job begins in conjuring up the programming initiatives and fresh ideas to sustain this undeniable momentum. Roll on, June 2009.
Author: Trevor Johnston
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