Edinburgh Film Festival Down But Not Out

Was it a dream or did I actually walk through Festival Square one morning last year and witness an Oscar winning actress and former film festival director lead 200 people in a flashmob dance sequence based on a Laurel and Hardy routine?

It really happened apparently. A daft but inspired and joyful event drawing a mob of local and national press to cover the launch of a new film initiative, their 8 ½ Foundation, and by default drawing more positive publicity to last year's Edinburgh Film Festival. And this was just one small unofficial side event.

A year on I walk this time through Bristo Square into the Teviot Union building. The Film Festival’s been underway for several days now and I’m entering the central networking and information hub for press, delegates, film-makers and the public. This is the nerve centre of the 65th Edinburgh International Film Festival.

It’s empty. It’s tumbleweed city.

Before it began I was well aware of the rumblings that there was trouble afoot but I still optimistically thought they’d pull a rabbit out of a hat.

So did they? Well yes, and no. But mainly no. It wasn’t a rabbit, more of a surprised and emaciated vole, but there it was nevertheless. The Guardian, The Scotsman, and other mainstream media have now weighed in with excoriating summations. Time Out magazine published the sensationally entitled ‘The Death of the Edinburgh International Film Festival?’.

So was it the unmitigated disaster it’s been made out to be? I don’t think so. Can it recover and improve? Of course but more importantly it must. It can’t go through another year like this.

Let's face it, things got off to a bad start when the opening film The Guard, described as ‘a mighty poteen bowl of cliché piss’ by the The List magazine suffered a temporary projection foul up in front of a two-thirds capacity audience. The Opening Party that followed was by all accounts even less well attended.

With the exception of David Mackenzie’s Perfect Sense causing a bit of an early stir, alongside Ewan McGregor’s presence, within days a multitude of issues had reared their ugly heads.

Ewan McGregor and bagpiper

Chiefly, there was half the usual number of films on show and at first glance they looked an uninspiring bunch.

This was counterbalanced by an overabundance of obscure music and art installation events. I attended one that involved sheep skulls atop moving robots. I quite liked it but what has it got to do with a film festival?

Compounding the lack of a printed catalogue this year the festival seemed in short supply of any substantial information. The traditional A to Z guide was available but filled with embarrassing mistakes and significant omissions. One day I asked for information on a film that appeared in the press screenings rota but not in the guide. They didn’t know anything about it and I was told simply to "Google it".

I don’t know about you but if someone alerted me the public wouldn’t buy tickets for something they couldn’t know about, I’d print up as many info sheets and posters as possible and distribute them throughout the relevant venues. I was unsurprised to learn the film in question sold few tickets.

Alongside the non-existent catalogue and despite high profile guest curators there was no decent or major retrospective, no awards, and initially it seemed no closing film or party. All were apparently ditched in favour of a new rootsy, back-to-basics vibe. Unfortunately this vibe included many dreadful films receiving significant walkouts.

But to be fair I did feel the festival managed to, if not exactly salvage itself, it did slowly turn itself around when the number of people and accompanying atmosphere gradually improved in relation to the number of decent films and events that transpired towards the close of the festival.

Lets face it, the exhilarating Trollhunter (see Al's interview with the film's writer-director) was a hit and required extra screenings to cope with demand. Danfung Dennis’ disturbing and powerful war documentary Hell and Back Again turned out to be a masterpiece.

Many good documentaries and dramas like Project Nim and the brilliant Calvet revealed themselves. Even the legend Bela Tarr showed up in person with his new epic opus Turin Horse.

Many raved about Tomboy and King of Devil’s Island. The goddess of Mannequin herself aka Sex in the City’s Kim Cattrall introduced a sell-out screening of Meet Monica Velour and I myself enjoyed the nostalgic guilty pleasure of Weekender and its thumping 90’s soundtrack.

There was also a fair bit of excitement at what essentially ended up standing in for a decent closing film. Talahina Sky: The Story of the Kings of Leon was received with semi hysteria at a packed Festival Theatre, in part due to the attendance of the band. This was the first time I thought ‘this feels like a proper film festival’. Unfortunately this feeling occurred on the last day.

So not an unmitigated disaster in the end but not up to scratch either. So what went wrong, who’s to blame and what can be done to repair the damage? I’ll be canvassing some opinions in the next day or two along with my own thoughts so watch this space.