Personal Reflections on Edinburgh International Film Festival 2016
In Lizzie Borden's experimental feature “Regrouping”, first screened at EIFF in 1976 and shown again this year in the Black Box strand of the festival in acknowledgement of its own 40th anniversary as well as marking past elements for EIFF's 70th celebrations, a group of feminist art students are shown to become increasingly splintered and incoherent as the very nature of what a group is becomes questioned and Borden herself begins to step outside of the group she was once part of and documented and instead begins to suggest she may be hoping to instigate and manipulate events, albeit without any clear goal in sight. She even suggests that, without realising it, this may have been her original intention all along. Shot on grainy 16mm film stock and consisting of multiple voices cut-up and proclaiming across each other, “Regrouping” does feel like watching a once unified body disintegrate into babbling horde. It wasn't an easy watch, but it was clearly an important piece of experimental film-making from the 1970s which still had lessons held within it for a contemporary audience.
The screening of “Regrouping” which I attended was on the evening of 23 June. Sadly, Borden had been due to attend but a flights mix-up meant that she would not be able to be present for a Q&A until the second screening of her work the following night. I can't help feeling, given what then happened in the state of British political, cultural and social affairs over the following 24 hours, that this second screening would have had a 100% different ambience and context to the one I attended. The leaving of unified groups in pursuit of some unspecified goal of self-determination had suddenly become the talking point of the festival. But, it wasn't to do with cinema. This was the sad, last few days of this year's EIFF. What had previously been an upbeat celebration of film-making began to resemble a wake. On Thursday evening, the festival hubs of the Filmhouse and Traverse bars were filled with happy, international artists and audiences talking excitedly about what they had seen that day, what they still hoped to see the next day. On Friday evening, the mood was sombre as people stared into the dregs of their drinks and found themselves incapable of discussing anything but events, events.
It was a glum and unfortunate last few days for what had, up until then, been a really nicely constructed and considered event. While the initial programme release had not looked wildly promising, particularly the slightly half-baked retrospectives of 70mm classics and early comic book adaptations, and the somewhat bizarre grand screenings of “E.T.” and “Highlander” which seemed to signal a festival living in the past, upon plunging in, as is so often the case with EIFF, there turned out to be quite a plethora of gleaming riches. As ever, the documentary strand came up with some highly notable features in particular. Andrew Becker and Daniel Mehrer's “Santoalla” told a real-life “Straw Dogs” tale of a free-living Dutch couple taking up residence in a rural part of Spain only to be met with resistance and then truly hideous repercussions from certain natives of the region. Nikolaus Geyrhalter's “Homo Sapiens” portrayed a series of mesmerising former dwelling places of the human race on this Earth, abandoned and left to rot to the elements as though some terrible apocalypse had prevailed upon the planet.
There was also an extremely strong showing from international fiction cinema, Jamie Dagg's “River” managing to get away from the implied exploitative connotations of its premise to gut-churning effect, while Iran's Morteza Farshbaf channelled Bergman with his slow motion dissection of a nurse falling apart while caring for a dying patient in “Avalanche”. There was a grand selection of thought-provoking shorts, both in their own strand and as part of Black Box, and it really is no cliché to say that this year's festival had something for everyone. Personally, I could have done without the Tartan shortbread boxisms of Jason Connery's “Tommy's Honour” or Gillies Mackinnon's remake of the Ealing classic, “Whisky Galore!”, both of which seemed selected purely for their Scottishness. But, there were clearly sound commercial reasons for both these choices and of their bookending the festival as opening and closing film respectively.
But, by the end it felt like events had taken over so much that all we could collectively do was go and sit in the corner while trying to formulate an appropriate artistic response, or indeed any response which didn't just involve heavy drinking and gloom. That wasn't Edinburgh International Film Festival's fault, though. They did good this year and were the victim of unfortunate, perhaps catastrophic timing, which was not in their hands. I take my hats off to the organisers, programmers and film-makers for a real feast of ideas and great films. This was not, to put it mildly, the piece I intended to write about EIFF 2016. I very much hope I can write a wildly different piece for EIFF 2017. They will doubtless already be looking at how to plug huge gaps in their funding which will almost certainly now take place due to a selfish, self-centred and narcissistic country choosing to cut its own throat.