The city of Edinburgh holds endless treasures. The dense, medieval city center, built in the crater of an ancient volcano, breathes history from the massive Edinburgh Castle, down the gothic Royal Mile to the Palace of Holyrood. The beautifully planned “New City” remains one of the best examples in the world of Georgian architecture, and throughout, the city is interrupted vivid green hills and cliffs. It is also known for the annual Edinburgh Festival in August, a massive conglomeration of arts and music events that has made up the largest arts festival in the world since its founding in 1947. This year, the 62nd annual Edinburgh International Film Festival struck out on its own, moving to June; ever since it opened on Wednesday, the 18th, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
“The idea of moving the date of the film festival has been around for a long time,” says EIFF artistic director Hannah McGill, who took over in 2006. “There are massive pressures on Edinburgh in August, with lodging, transport, venues.” Even harder than dealing with the crowds, says McGill, was staking out a unique identity as a film festival. “We weren’t looking so much for a different identity, but a clearer one,” she says. “People think of “The Edinburgh Festival”, and they forget that the Fringe Festival, the Book Festival, the Jazz festival- they’re all distinct entities with different identities… We’ve always been one of the edgier film festivals anywhere, and this move just gives us the space to grow into that identity. We want the entirety of the program to be noticed, not just the top tier, the biggest names.”
That said, the crowds of photographers and onlookers were certainly interested in the big names attending the opening night movie, John Maybury‘s Dylan Thomas docudrama “The Edge of Love“. Guests included the film’s stars Keira Knightley, Sienna Miller, and Matthew Rhys, as well as festival patrons Sir Sean Connery and Tilda Swinton, and jury members Danny Huston and Joely Richardson. Even poor Prince William, attending the castle on an unrelated matter, couldn’t distract the paparazzi from the press conference in the afternoon, where Knightley -looking flawless, it must be said- received the lion’s share of the attention. “We’ve adopted you as our own here in Scotland,” gushed one reporter to the starlet. “Is there anything Scottish in you?”
“Well, yes, there is something Scottish in me; she would kill me if I said no” responded Knightley, with a nod to her mother, Scottish playwright and actress Sharman MacDonald, who wrote the screenplay. “I really like… haggis. And kilts. I love kilts. Is that enough?”
The movie, unfortunately, was standard biopic love-triangle fare, with a Dylan Thomas character that was both uncharismatic and thin- neither of which was true in real life. If the film wasn’t terrific, however, the opening night party certainly was, as EIFF took over Edinburgh University’s gothic student union Teviot Row House (generally dominated by the Fringe Festival) to put on a 1940s-themed gala, complete with 4 floors of dancing and drinking. Friendly waiters served British specialties like bangers and mash, Welsh rarebit and fish and chips to festive partygoers dressed in either 1940s-era formalwear or celebratory kilts, and every single one of them agreed: the date change had been a good idea.
The palpable excitement about this year’s festival was something of an achievement, considering the EIFF is the world’s oldest continually running film festival; Cannes got started one year before, and Venice a decade, but both have experienced interruptions. In its original incarnation, Edinburgh was exclusively a documentary festival; though that limitation was quickly abandoned (in time to show work by Rossellini and Mizoguchi), there remains a strong documentary section to this day. Errol Morris was in town to give one of the festival’s “In Person” discussions (his thrilling, underrated Abu Ghraib documentary “Standard Operating Procedure” was one of the gala UK premieres), the Scottish shorts program was exclusively made up of documentaries, and the extensive documentary category featured such great, infuriating films as Pietra Bretkelly‘s “The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins” and Margaret Brown‘s “The Order of Myths“. The main competition featured two documentaries, James Marsh‘s phenomenal, spellbinding Sundance-winner “Man on Wire“, about French tightrope-walker Philippe Petit‘s walk between the top of the two World Trade Center towers in the 1970s, and Chris Waitt‘s horribly annoying “The Complete History of My Sexual Failures“, whose title tells you everything you need to know.
This year, McGill started a new section named “Under the Radar” devoted to cult films, after meeting filmmaker Alex Orr at a bus stop at Sundance, where he was a volunteer, and realizing that there was an audience in Edinburgh for his campy horror film “Blood Car“, about a vegan with a carnivorous car. “I mean this with profound affection, but our core audience are geeks,” says McGill. “Edinburgh is full of them, obsessives who love underground stuff, culty stuff. The people who are have been the hottest tickets in our ‘In Person’ events aren’t the A-listers, they’re George Romero, Joss Whedon, people with cult followings. This year, it’s Ray Harryhausen, the special effects animator [of “Mighty Joe Young” and “Clash of the Titans“]. Those are our superstars.”
Cinematographers certainly aren’t left out of the Edinburgh love; the festival held a particularly anticipated conversation between two of this year’s academy-award nominated cinematographers Roger Deakins (“No Country for Old Men“, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford“) and Seamus Mcgarvey (“Atonement“). Longtime Wong Kar-Wai collaborator Chris Doyle held the world premiere of his film “Warsaw Dark“, about violent Mafioso and tragic prostitutes in the title city (which Doyle portrays as a hellhole). It’s a disappointing film from one of the world’s finest cinematographers, somehow managing to simultaneously look beautiful and be profoundly ugly, as doomed people live out bleak situations, cursing the horrors of capitalism.
Edinburgh has also traditionally served as a showcase for the art of the music video, through its Mirrorball program, a collection of music videos that EIFF travels throughout the world (with shows in Australia, the US and Japan). “There really aren’t any other film festivals out there that focus so intensely on this kind of work,” says David Drummond, who has been running Mirrorball for 8 years; the program was founded in 1996 when EIFF shorts programmer David Smith noticed a number of filmmaker’s reels included music videos, which he often preferred to their films. “The programs have always been extremely popular,” says Drummond, “but to be honest I’ve seen the numbers attendance drop slightly. There didn’t used to be a forum to see these videos, and now a lot of them are on Youtube.”
In response to this, Drummond has been using the change of festival dates to let the program stretch its legs with different events in a new festival venue, The Caves, part of Edinburgh’s extensive underground city. These included a dance party themed around the music of Arthur Russell (to coincide with Matt Wolf‘s documentary portrait of the musician “Wild Combination“), an electronic music/art show, and, most notably, a performance of the band British Sea Power, who played an original soundtrack to accompany Robert Flaherty‘s 1934 documentary “Man of Aran“.
“It’s really been a dream of mine to have a live music event,” says Drummond. “It couldn’t have come true if we were still part of the larger festival. Mirrorball is so lucky to be in a city with so many unique, incredible venues, and now we’re finally able to use them all.”
The Edinburgh International Film Festival continues through Sunday, 6/29.