Edinburgh International Film Festival: Round-Up

Words by Carla MacKinnon

Early Sunday afternoon in Edinburgh’s Filmhouse, and a packed room is being addressed by the University’s Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience. Following a screening of Memento the professor is explaining, in a thick Italian accent, the relationship of memory to the brain. Several hours later, a cinema full of awed cinephiles sit reeling from the impact of Bela Tarr’s Turin Horse. The film is very long, impossibly slow and deeply moving, confronting the audience with boredom and beauty by turns. When the legendary Hungarian director shuffles to the front of the stage he is greeted with rapturous applause. Charmingly gracious and grave, Tarr is generous with his audience, discussing his thoughts on cinema and the reasons why the film will be his swansong. Under normal circumstances these two events in such quick succession would leave me speechless for days, but mere hours later I am sitting in yet another cinema to watch The Last Circus, a crowd-pleasing, blood-spattered Spanish thriller centred on machete-brandishing circus clowns. This year’s Edinburgh Film Festival poster bears the slogan ‘something for everyone’, and it has to be said that it delivers on its promise.

The 11 day event follows a year of nagging controversy and press speculation for Edinburgh. Artistic Director Hannah McGill stepped down in the autumn of 2010, and in the perceived chaos that followed many wondered how the festival could possibly come together for 2011. However the appointment of a new director, James Mullighan, in December, brought with it a welcome change of direction. Mullighan announced that the 2011 festival would step away from red carpets and press-pandering, offering a more open, diverse programme of events – indeed, something for everyone.

A tight timeline and reduced budget was evident in the slimmed down programme of feature films, with a focus instead on short film and compelling unique events. That said, the festival had to lay on additional screenings for the several thousand people who descended on Edinburgh’s theatres for the European Premiere of Perfect Sense (with Ewan McGregor in attendance) and Page Eight (with Sir David Hare and star Bill Nighy present). The rest of the week also saw its share of stars, from Sex In The City’s Kim Cattrall to The Kings of Leon, who premiered their documentary at the festival.

The real meat of this year’s festival though was to be found in the details and packed out cinemas and buzzing audiences were not reserved for big features or star appearances. There was a genuine freshness and excitement to be found in the smaller and riskier events. A Wellcome Trust supported initiative ‘Reel Science’ brought neuroscientists, bioethicists and roboticists to the festival to discuss films as diverse as Terminator and Brainstorm. Project Nim, the new offering from the team behind Man on Wire, received its UK premiere (a premiere shared with Sheffield DocFest) at the festival. The film’s screening was accompanied by a fascinating discussion with an animal activist and a bioethicist. Later in the week neuropsychologist and author Dr Paul Broks presented a captivating event looking at neurophilosophy and film – examining identity and consciousness through neuroscience and the films of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Meanwhile the festival’s ‘conflict and reportage’ strand, in association with Frontline Club, presented hard and challenging material. Hell and Back Again has particularly grabbed critics and audiences. Shot on a Canon 5D strapped to the filmmaker’s front, the film puts the viewer right in the action of war-torn Afghanistan, offering a completely new kind of war documentary.

The non-film content has also been a rich mix. In Subtlemob’s immersive, interactive audio event Our Broken Voice, a group of participants, unknown to each other, simultaneously listen to a narrative on their personal mp3 players in a public space. This emotional, fictionalised audio tour of a cinematic narrative within one geographic space brought a welcome taste of transmedia storytelling to the festival. All this was set against a solid daily industry programme of training and networking, with well-received events looking at financing, self-distribution, career sustainability and new technologies.

The festival has had more than its fair share of criticism in recent years, and it is true that significant support will be needed to help it regain its status and reputation. This year’s event has sown important seeds for that journey. The UK’s financial and cultural landscape is changing, and it is essential that festivals are able to adapt. This means audience development, interdisciplinary and brand financing and a fresh approach to programming and production. The work done by Edinburgh this year is a brave step in the right direction.


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