An almost palpable sigh of relief could be heard during the announcement of this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival program – especially after the disappointment of last year’s critically mauled incarnation.
The world’s longest continuingly running film festival went through a major transitional period last year, yet in an attempt to rejuvenate a festival whose funding had been drastically slashed due to the collapse of the UK Film Council the organizers failed to capture the essence of previous events, culminating in a program that felt like a rushed and improvised celebration of cinema rather than a carefully curated love letter to the medium. This year however, the festival is under the watchful eye of artistic director and renowned cinephile Chris Fujiwara and has already begun to show signs of a vast improvement since kicking off last week.
One of the most welcomed changes to this year’s event was the reinstatement of the Michael Powell Award for the best British feature film. At this early stage of the festival only a few of the nominated films have screened, yet it would appear there’s already a forerunner for the prize in the shape of Bart Layton’s "The Imposter." A resounding favorite amongst the festival’s press and media, Layton’s documentary about a French con artist who pretended to be a lost Texan boy and successfully fooled not only the boy’s family but the American authorities is a prime example of how fact can often be stranger than fiction. After initially feeling like it’s played its trump card far too early, "The Imposter" — through a meticulously rendered narrative arc — reveals a story with far more depth and integrity than it’s enticing premise initially suggests. A fascinating examination of the psychological complexities behind the definition of the truth, this remarkable documentary is totally captivating and continues to resonate long after the final credits role.
The Edinburgh Film Festival program wouldn’t be the same without its obligatory critical darling from the Berlinale. Last year Bela Tarr’s directorial swan song "The Turin Horse" took this coveted spot and this year the honor befell Miguel Gomes’ intoxicating love story, "Tabu." Playfully switching from the gloom of present day Lisbon to the warmth and perceived simplicity of life in the past, "Tabu" is a hypnotic novella of a film which plays with audience’s nostalgia for the past while simultaneously creating a engaging and utterly charming tale of love against adversity – all whilst acting as a fascinating critique of the colonization of Africa by Portugal. Drawing its influences from the early romantic era of early Hollywood filmmaking and shot in the Academy ratio, "Tabu" has so far wooed both critics and audiences at this year’s festival.
One of the joys of any film festival is probing through the program in search of that little hidden gem of a film, which could possibly go on to be the next ‘big thing’. This year that film could very well be Nathan Silver’s minimalist, micro budget drama "Exit Elena." This beautifully observed and charming drama is about a newly qualified live-in-nurse and her turbulent experience working for an affluent middle class American family. Riddled with a delightfully eclectic mix of deeply detestable characters, Silver’s remarkably assured debut transcends its meager budget and lo-fi methodology to create a carefully constructed examination of how we treat not only our elderly but also those who we pertain to hold dear to us. Building a palpable atmosphere of anxiety and despair this incredibly awkward, but often hilarious indie movie is one of the more pleasant surprises unearthed at this year’s festival.
Understandably very few critics braved Sergey Loban’s sprawling, 207-minute epic, "The Chapiteau Show" but those who did found their commitment and patience rewarded with a baffling, yet utterly compelling piece of experimental cinema. Four interwoven narratives bookended with surreal musical vignettes make up the foundations of this epic examination of changing values in contemporary Russia. Tales of love and friendship are amalgamated with some outlandish, yet captivating experimental cabaret acts — including a musical number that sees Marilyn Monroe dancing with a bear in a spacesuit, whilst a flamboyant matador choreographs their tragic love story. This absurd extract is just one of many examples of Loban’s confounding cavalcade of bewildering, yet thoroughly entertaining set pieces -each perfectly accompanying the film’s vibrant pace and energy.
However, for every expansive piece of experimental cinema that works, there’s always a handful of those that don’t. The most divisive film at this year’s festival so far is DJ Chen’s apocalyptic comedy drama "Young Dudes." Following an aspiring rock musician and his carpentry teacher friend, "Young Dudes" is a muddled and perplexing story about a virtual spaceship called Klaatu which aims to challenge the notion of ‘nations’ and create a more global community based on the ideals of a worldwide family. Built on the foundations of a high concept, sci-fi infused story, Chen’s film disregards the rules of conventional narrative structure in favor of erroneous visual flourishes, culminates in a horribly pretentious and indulgent tapestry of misguided ideas that infuriate far more than entertain.
With the festival now in full swing and critical and public spirits high there remains plenty of anticipated screenings left to enthrall the audiences of the Scottish capital – including Peter Strickland’s thriller "Berbarian Sound Studio" and James Marsh’s Northern Irish thriller "Shadow Dancer."
Check back later this week for a list of the top ten films not to miss from this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival.