The death of the Edinburgh International Film Festival?

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The omens were always bad – but this year’s festival was a straight-to-video flop. Trevor Johnston heads north

The organisers promised us a new kind of Edinburgh International Film Festival, a rootsy cinephile gathering to take the event forward by dispensing with the previous format. Out went the Michael Powell Award for the Best New British Feature; gone too was the New Directors Award. Red carpets were now a thing of the past as the proceedings abandoned the city’s Cineworld multiplex for its traditional arthouse cinemas the Filmhouse and Cameo Picturehouse. ‘All That Heaven Allows’ was the branding slogan, borrowing a title from an old Douglas Sirk melodrama. All bets were off in what amounted to a total rethink.

Sadly, in Sirkian parlance, what we actually got was more like ‘Imitation of Life’. The weakest selection of films in two decades unspooled mediocrity after mediocrity. Prestigious visiting talent was notable by its absence. The Edinburgh Student Union building also provided an uninspiring festival hub. There were rows of empty seats, and when you eavesdropped on the paying public the same complaints resounded: little in the programme they wanted to see, and ticket prices too expensive.

With no multi-buy offers this year, and, staggeringly, no catalogue to offer a fuller critical appraisal of the fare on offer, one could hardly blame the Edinburgh public for staying away. Last year the event didn’t release official box-office figures: this year they may not even want to collate them. As someone who’s been a regular to this festival since my own uni days in the Scottish capital back in the mid-’80s, it was genuinely upsetting seeing an event which has been so vibrant and exciting in the past reduced to this shambolic state.

From a London-centric perspective, it would be easy to shrug all this off and count the days until the programme’s announced for this year’s inevitable celluloid cornucopia at the London Film Festival. That would be a mistake though, since Edinburgh has always in the past been a space where the fresh and the exciting could make an impact more readily than in the midst of London’s abundance of festival distractions. It’s been an essential feeder for the UK’s film culture, from ‘Let the Right One In’, ‘My Summer of Love’ and ‘Amores Perros’ right back to icons like ‘My Beautiful Laundrette’ and ‘Betty Blue’. If the Edinburgh Film Festival loses the plot and becomes basically a local event rather than a significant date on the international calendar, then everybody loses.

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To be fair, there were occasional flickers of interest this year, what with the absolute hoot that was ‘The Guard’, John Michael McDonagh’s sarky Connemara cop movie with a resplendent Brendan Gleeson, delivering a spirited opener. Hungarian maestro Béla Tarr was rightly accorded a hero’s welcome as he arrived with ‘The Turin Horse’, an austere yet uplifting parable of hope and endurance he claims will be his final film. Elsewhere, the standout in a small but largely unprepossessing bunch of British offerings, was ‘Hallam Foe’ director David Mackenzie’s ‘Perfect Sense’, which deftly used an intimate love story (Ewan McGregor, Eva Green) and Glasgow settings to unfurl a tale of a mystery virus wreaking global devastation while prompting a recognition of humanity’s core values – imaginative and ultimately affecting. I must confess a soft spot too for Jeanie Finlay’s ‘Sound It Out’, a loving portrait of an old-school record shop in Stockton-on-Tees, which was touching on a human level in a way that much-touted doc offering ‘Project Nim’, James Marsh’s vividly told yet thematically diffuse primate-research saga, never quite managed.

There were many more titles which fell below expectation, which largely meant the focus turned to the festival’s behind-the-scenes dramas instead. Although an expert in film industry networking, new artistic director James Mullighan seemingly lacks the cinephile expertise you'd expect for an event of this nature. Nonetheless, he did only have four months to put together his programme after much dithering by CEO Gavin Miller and the board of the festival’s new umbrella organisation, the Centre for the Moving Image. That the artistic director post will be re-advertised again next month at least indicates a recognition that swift action is needed, yet after hearing the hyperbolic twaddle spouted by marketing expert Miller at the opening night, and indeed much rumour-mill questioning of the decisions taken at boardroom level, confidence that the wherewithal is there to pull the event out of its tailspin remains worryingly low.

Possible solutions? A new artistic director with the taste to pick the right films and the fight to ensure Edinburgh gets them is surely the priority. Getting back to some ‘Magnificent Obsession’ (Sirk titles, we love ‘em!) could provide a basis for progress, and switching back from June to the August date of yore would surely help in accessing key autumn arthouse movies from British distributors, thus grounding the programme to allow for innovation elsewhere. Someone somewhere needs to grasp what exactly Edinburgh is for, and quickly. After this catastrophe, the last-chance saloon beckons.

Author: Trevor Johnston



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