Edinburgh International Film Festival Preview: Aristotle Recall

Submitted by Al Innes on Thu, 2 Jun '11 8.06pm

The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, was no stranger to intrigue. Controversy and rumour weave seamlessly into a life story that also includes great works of poetry, tragedy and ethical musings. So too the life of so many festivals through the years. Trends change, leaders come and go and new technologies deliver whole new worlds of wonder and creation, as well as danger. And so it that I have this son of Thessaloniki on my mind as I catch up with director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival in the heart of the University of Edinburgh, home to a great many philosophers in its day. But why?

Well, in his Poetics, the old scholar defines drama in six parts. While this can and has been applied to film theory, I'd like to take a slightly different tack for the purposes of this piece. Firstly there is the plot, or mythos, which might involve the planning of a film festival. Secondly the character, or ethos, which might refer to the director, in this case Mr. Mullighan who has been tasked with delivering a new-look festival at very short notice. Then comes the thought, the diction and the melody, these parts are all too familiar to those of us concerned with commenting on these great festivals of our civilised age. And finally there is the spectacle, or opsis, and this is where each and every Edinburgh International Film Festival hopes and dreams it will make its mark.

So far, this spectacle has involved its fair share of drama in the news. I, like many of you , hope that the festival proves to be a compellingly dramatic and successful endeavour, so I caught up with its director to find, with less than two weeks till kick-off, just what his thoughts were on this dramatic endeavour.

On the subject of his initial plans for the festival platform, Mullighan is keen to stress he did not want to "throw the baby out with the bathwater" because there was a "loyal" base of festival goers out there.

"We've sought very much to get to new eyeballs. I mean, I've been in and around the film industry with the previous two jobs, for about eight years, but they've been different angles. Working without money changing hands, with partners, for compelling events that people will want to buy tickets to is very much what I've been doing. It's a bit like, we haven't got any money to spend on it so let's..."

Here he pauses, seemingly unwilling to go run over familiar funding-issue territory.

"There is a budget don't get me wrong, and it's of sufficient size to make sure this show goes up. But there was so much extra that I wanted to do that had to be done on a collaborative basis." Mullighan is candid about the problems he has faced since taking over amid stories of unrest .

"A lot of it's been done at pace. I've had several questions asking why I didn't get particular films and the answer is actually what they needed from that particular film I wasn't able to offer, or I just didn't have time. It's been huge getting what takes eight months done in fourteen weeks really. And all the staff have been run ragged bless them."

He gestures to the EIFF Programme on the table, obviously now an item of deep significance to all involved. Some of the more hyperbolic speculations of the past few months had suggested there might not be a festival at all.

"Every typo is a broken heart." He smiles.

We move onto the subject of mingling delegates with public festival goers. Something I suggested earlier this week might have been a slightly muddled process.

I ask: "How important was it for you to make that change?" The reply is unequivocal.

"Crucial. I'm not criticising anything that has gone before, it's more that I saw an excellent opportunity and made it a priority. Lot's of people want to come and see the film and go home again and send the babysitter on her way. But a lot of people who come to the film festival want to make films; and even if they don't want to make films it's their big passion and they want to know how films are made. The festival would put on these amazing explainer events from really important film-makers and players in the industry and you could only get in if you had a delegates pass. And so these amazing shows would play to half empty rooms because everyone is busy and can't do everything at one time. There will be a lot of those events which the public won't want to go to do, or they will clash with other events. But I've tried to make as many of them as free as possible."

And the change to the new headquarters, grandly titled Festivalhouse@Teviot.

"You know how fun this part of town is in August. I want that. I want the festival to have that. And free from the encumbrance of The Fringe. It was a smart decision to move away from August. It annoyed some people, a lot of people used to like popping up and taking in a show and going to the book tents and then they could watch a film. Well, I'm sorry that this festival isn't for them and my answer to that is that they should come twice. Come in June then come again in August."

The infectious buzz that the Fringe has had on Mullighan is clear. As an Adelaide boy he makes no odds about his home town's "deliberate and unapologetic carbon copy" of the Edinburgh International Festival, and he seems keen to frame the 65th Edinburgh International Film Festival in that light.

"I want people as often as possible when they've finished what they are doing to come here (Festivalhouse@Teviot), because who knows what they are going to bump into. They know that at five fifteen every day there is a free event with a film-maker on stage at the cafeteria downstairs, (Teviot's newly refurbished Mezzanine). They know that on most nights there will be club nights. Which will be dancey but very much film and music affairs. They might bump into the person they saw doing a Q&A yesterday and want to meet them. If you're the sort of VIP for whom that idea makes your skin crawl, then this is probably not the year for you to come to the festival. I really don't want roped off areas. Inevitably, there won't be none of them. Sponsors will want private events, and these people are paying the money to make my show possible."

Mullighan is in a chatty mood. He is proud of what he and his team have accomplished over the past months and he know that that scrutiny will continue long after the curtain comes down on this year's festival. I decide it's probably a good time to get another of those bug-bears put to rest, and ask why the Cineworld complex - home to red carpet premières, a dozen large cinema screens and able to afford huge numbers of ticket sales for the festival - has been dropped for the festival.

"We knew that the film program was going to be smaller. Because I needed to make a lot of room for the stuff that I was working from Mark Cousins, Linda Miles and Tilda Swinton and a lot of that could be experiential and not need a formal cinema venue."

Any question of him passing the buck to the 'Creative Advisers' that have so filled the column inches in the past weeks, is quickly dispelled by a festival director keen to place his personal stamp on this year.

"I also didn't like the journey as a delegate at nine in the morning down to Fountainbridge. It's fine for what it is, if you want to go see Pirate of The Caribbean, why not? The cinemas are great because it's quite a new complex. We just didn't really feel like we had the need to go there and once we were relieved on the necessity of working out how we were going to fill the screens, we just moved on really."

"We obviously needed more than the Filmhouse and the Cameo could offer us, and I wanted to move the festival into town and in a lot of ways [Cineworld] is on the wrong side of Lothian Road. This was one of the first decisions I made, and we can show clips and things in this building but not full cinema events to keep the owner of the film happy. The debating hall is a debating hall, it's not a cinema with the right acoustics or anything. And so now that we were up [in the centre of town] Cineworld felt like it was forty five minutes away and if delegates are here and we ask them to travel there then we need buses and we're ruining the ozone layer. So we kidnapped George Square lecture theatre with full digital projection."

"One of the advantages of being director is you can put into the show whatever you want and make it the show you want to go to."

And so we come back to Aristotle. The old Greek famously posited: "For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them." I suspect James Mullighan will take some comfort in that.

As always you can follow my @Edfilmfest tweets at twitter.com/alguinness

The 65th Edinburgh International Film Festival runs from the 15th to the 26th of June 2011.

Mullighan's vision reminds me a lot of what the Edinburgh Fringe Film and Video Festival used to be like. Remember that? Fifteen or more years ago, when many aspiring filmmakers were still doing linear edits on videotape, there were loads of people mingling about Filmhouse from local film and art schools, Pilton Video, the Film and Video Workshop on Albany Street, and visiting film and art students. The quality was all over the shop, but it was a great forum to meet like-minded people - many have gone on to successful careers in the film and television industry.

It makes me think that with Mullighan's experience in the indie filmworld, the Teviot component of the EIFF will be the best part of the festival for people who want to get into the film industry. If the EIFF pulls it off, delegates might look back on it as a golden time. Sure, that's only part of the EIFF's audience - but this year's "filmmakers forum" component might come into its own and films by this year's "delegates" could be appearing in the main programme at future EIFFs.

It's also good to see that the EIFF HQ at Teviot and these filmmaker events are open to all this year. I went to some of the industry events last year - for example, I spent a whole day learning about how filmmakers use social media (pretty useful) and another day learning about licensing content (very dry but thorough). They werent well attended at all and I think it was partly because nobody knew they were happening until the last minute.

It may have been because they chose to restrict numbers. Or it may have been that they didn't have a free bar. As everybody knows if you want a crowd at the EIFF then have a happy hour.