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Evolution, or Even Revolution: Hannah McGill On Edinburgh's 63rd Birthday

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire June 18, 2009 at 2:10AM

Last night in Scotland, the Edinburgh International Film Festival officially turned 63 years old. The occasion was marked with the UK premiere of Sam Mendes' "Away We Go," before the festival headed into eleven days and nights of films, parties and industry events amidst one of Europe's most architecturally renowned cities. indieWIRE spoke with the festival's artistic director, Hannah McGill, about the impending festivities, and how one of the world's oldest film festivals is keeping up with ever-evolving and intertwined sphere of art, technology, economics to which it belongs.
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Last night in Scotland, the Edinburgh International Film Festival officially turned 63 years old. The occasion was marked with the UK premiere of Sam Mendes' "Away We Go," before the festival headed into eleven days and nights of films, parties and industry events amidst one of Europe's most architecturally renowned cities. indieWIRE spoke with the festival's artistic director, Hannah McGill, about the impending festivities, and how one of the world's oldest film festivals is keeping up with ever-evolving and intertwined sphere of art, technology, economics to which it belongs.

"All film festivals are required to shift and change in the face of massive technological change for one thing and massive economic change for another thing," McGill said. "So I think we're in a position at the moment where nothing's staying the same. When I look back at the festival's [recent past], it was a more stable entity in that people expected to come and watch films. I think those requirements shift when people have many, many more ways of watching movies and expect different kinds of information about the industry, and about technology, and so on. So I think we're having to be very reactive to change but I think that's really good for an organization that's 63 years old."

After starting out as a film journalist, the then-29 year old McGill took over Shane Danielsen's position as the festival's artistic director in 2006. "I was ready for a change," she quipped. "As I'm sure you well know, print journalism wasn't looking like it had much of a future..."

In the three years that have passed, McGill's readiness for change has certainly been tested. For one, last year the festival made the risky decision to move from the midst of August's annual Edinburgh Festival - a massive mix of arts and music events that has made up the largest arts festival in the world since its founding in 1947 - to June.

"It was probably the biggest change that any of the Edinburgh festivals has undertaken over a very long period of time," she said. "So that was a big challenge. It meant putting two festivals together within a year, which was really hard. But at the same time, we also got this fantastic funding from the UK Film Council's festival strategy. This really allowed us to develop the festival."

Among these developments was a heightened emphasis on industry elements, which has manifested this year in an extensive series of panels, workshops and networking events.

Hannah McGill at Edinburgh's opening press conference yesterday. Photo courtesy of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

"There's a lot going on the festival's industry side," McGill explained. "It has a lot to do with filmmakers interfacing with technology providers. It's really important that the festival is practically useful in that way so delegates can come up here and learn. I think a lot of people that work in the film industry - even very high up - are a little overwhelmed by how fast the technology moves. So I think it's great when a festival can be a place where people can catch their grasp."

Also part of what the UK film council's investment allowed McGill and her staff to do was "clarify and define" what their festival is. "We have been pushing the festival much more as a festival of discovery, as a place of new talent, as a meeting place for UK talent and the international industry... So that's an ongoing process for us but that's come into focus more predominately in the last couple of years. And I hope we will continue to move in that direction."

As for the films themselves, McGill said that the festival "didn't go with a specific theme this year." Continuing, she noted, "Having had such a massive change last year, we wanted the audience to feel self-secured and keep things stable. But we did push very hard to have more world and international premieres in the lineup... It's very important for me that the festival is not just a link in that chain of festivals that basically show all the same stuff and that we do have an original voice. I think our audience has come to expect that and invest a lot in the individuality of Edinburgh. So that's something I really wanted to ensure."

What audiences can expect, McGill said, was a lot of "inspiring, new, young filmmakers" and a lot of "really interesting" British works. "It's very diverse," she said. "Because you hear a lot about the state of the British film industry and where's the next big hit. I always think that if people are really paying attention to festival's programming, they will see there's a lot of diversity going on in the UK that doesn't necessarily break through to the mainstream but it's there."

This diversity is perhaps best exemplified in the ten films in the running for the Michael Powell Award, sponsored by the UK Film Council and carrying a prize of 20,000 pounds to the best British film at the festival: Brian Percival's "A Boy Called Dad," Duncan Ward's "Boogie Woogie," Jan Dunn's "The Calling," Justin Molotinkov's "Crying With Laughter," Andrea Arnold's "Fish Tank," Lindy Heymann's "Kicks," Avie Luthra's "Mad, Sad & Bad," Duncan Jones' "Moon," Julian Kemp's "The Last Five Girlfriends," Dale Corlett's "Running In Traffic," and Alexis Dos Santos' "Unmade Beds."

McGill hopes the festival will give films like these a chance to find themselves beyond the festival scene (though in the case of one example - "Moon" - that's already happened). "One thing that's really interesting to me is that as distribution and exhibition changes, especially in the current economic situation, few of these films have a guaranteed theatrical future in this country and, indeed, anywhere," she said. "So I think in a way there's a great deal of pressure on us to be the chance for these films to be shown in front of an audience. I think there was a time even a few years ago where there were many more boutique independent distributors in the UK who would pick up niche or foreign language titles. And it's not that they've gone away entirely but there are fewer of them and they've got less money to spend which means that very strong titles that you would have expected to get a cinematic release a few years ago, now don't. While that's sad in way, I think it also sort of increases the relevance of the festival. It means those audiences are really getting something they're not going to get anywhere else, and that we can work hard to get those films some sort of future."

The Edinburgh International Film Festival runs through June 28th. indieWIRE will be on the scene beginning tomorrow, but in the meantime, you can check out the festival's schedule here.

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