It’s easy to grumble and moan. I too find myself falling into the trap of complaining that things are just not the same as the good old days.
And so I did some bleating of my own as I milled around before the start of this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival press launch at Teviot House, running into colleagues, listening to the rumblings and fears that this year’s conspicuously low key launch was going to mirror the forthcoming event itself. Mutterings in the recent media and backroom gossip had painted a bleak picture that not all was well with the festival, now in its 65th year.
Then up stepped this year’s new festival director James Mullighan. Half an hour later the assembled press warmly applauded a rousing speech in which those fears and doubts were acknowledged and swept aside. Yes there have been problems and changes. Yes the scale of the event isn’t on a par with previous years. But Yes, there will be a film festival and by golly, some of it will be damn good. The post reception mutterings were decidedly positive. ‘Great speech’ we all agreed, maybe we should cut the new guy some slack.
The last decade had seen the most notable changes in years. The era of festival directors running the event in their own manner for years on end gave way to guest directors propping it up for a year or two at most. Funding, sponsorship and publicity varied with the times.
One of the more notable alterations of the last decade was a gradual separation of the public from the event itself. This went against Edinburgh’s reputation for informality. Whilst the public could still participate, they couldn’t in general mingle with the filmmakers, delegates and assorted guests as the festival created a ‘delegate centre’ separate from the venues requiring industry accreditation to access. The change in attendance and atmosphere was instant.
No longer could aspiring young filmmakers, film students and people in the industry at large join in the party and meet their idols, swap banter and develop ideas over a drink. Mullighan wants to re-establish that this year by allowing the public into the fold and create an atmosphere reminiscent of the Edinburgh Fringe itself (having the festival HQ set up in Teviot gives it an instant Fringe feel). In other words, create a buzz. I really hope this works, for regardless of the quality of work on display, a festival is also remembered for the welcoming atmosphere it generates both for its guests and the public.
But also commercial pressures and the fiercely competitive nature of both new and established film festivals acquiring exclusive premieres and handing out well-publicised awards took its toll. We tried for a while to run a film festival market, a bold effort that sadly didn’t take off. We upped the number and significance of the awards. And then the unexpected move of the event from August to June ruffled many feathers. If the film festival wasn’t happening during the International Festival, was it really happening at all?
Yes I do believe it is. Mullighan was down-to-earth, honest, and witty about both himself and the forthcoming event’s reception in the media. Describing himself as a once ‘callow youth from Adelaide’ he admitted ‘we’ve had to put out some bush fires in the last few weeks’.
He went onto describe the input by former festival directors Mark Cousins and Lynda Myles in collaboration with actress Tilda Swinton and others with their enthusiastic overabundance of ideas for films and events. ‘ Many of their ideas were bonkers’ he remarked ‘but many were brilliant and many of them have made it into this year's programme’.
Whilst it’s a slimmed down programme (90 features with 47 UK and International Premieres and 22 Documentary Premieres) there are over its twelve-day span the usual retrospectives (this year dubbed ‘perspectives’) and short films. But this year will see a special emphasis on experimental filmmaking, documentaries and a special strand devoted to music and sound.
Within the documentary strand and in light of current world events, combined with the growing emergence of hand held digital technology, there’s a particular emphasis on conflict zone reportage.
The tentpole event of this is the UK premiere of Hell and Back Again about which Mullighan spoke passionately. By all accounts it sounds like the war documentary to end war documentaries. With astonishing battle footage and the impact on the soldiers clearly depicted it could prove to be something of both artistic, political and media significance during this years event, particularly as it will have a special screening set aside for war veterans.
A brief flip through the film festival programme promises many other potentially great new films, events, and workshops and I for one have decided to look forward to it with an optimistic and open-minded eye.
With all James Mullighan's experience at indie film network Shooting People I'm sure the filmmaking and industry elements of the EIFF will be good. It's an exciting (albeit financially still tough) time for media producers with the drop in technoglogy costs opening up the field to many more people. The festival has struggled in previous years to get to grips in any memorable way with these seismic shifts in the film and media landscape so the realignment of the festival around normal people not celebs might pay off. Danger is events like the Project: New Cinephilia end up being attended by cinema anoraks only.
And note how little we're actually talking about the films!