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DISPATCH FROM SCOTLAND | “Somers Towns” Leads Winners in Edinburgh

DISPATCH FROM SCOTLAND | "Somers Towns" Leads Winners in Edinburgh

The 62nd annual Edinburgh International Film Festival came to a close this weekend, after screening over 130 films over the course of 12 days, throughout the cobblestoned medieval cluster of the Scottish capital. Founded in 1947 in conjunction with Edinburgh Festival in August, the festival was intended to help revive the city’s post-war economy. This year marked the first year the film festival ran at a different time and the event had tremendous help in smoothing the transition from its dedicated patrons, Sean Connery and Tilda Swinton, who were present throughout the EIFF’s duration at many screenings, dinners and gatherings. Connery hosted the awards ceremony on Sunday night, presenting the Michael Powell Award, named for Britain’s leading golden-era director, to the best in British cinema.

“I think Edinburgh attracts a certain type of person, as a city,” says EIFF artistic director Hannah McGill. “We have a challenging music and arts scene, a little rebellious against the mainstream…. We’re not the metropolis. It feels more like an event than the London Film Festival, because the British film people all live there, in SoHo. Here, they’re away from home, and they can get more relaxed, and excited, and drunk.”

In between the drinking, festival participants are invited to watch films, of course, with a particular emphasis on British film–the festival’s main competition is limited exclusively to cinema from the United Kingdom. “Edinburgh has always been concentrated on showcasing UK cinema in the state that it’s presently in,” says EIFF managing director Ginnie Atkinson. “We are the most important promoters, showcasers, and reflection of what’s going on in the British film industry… if we have a weak British program for any reason one year, it causes a spirited debate as to why that is.”

“The Michael Powell award is the single most important prize for an independent British filmmaker,” says Atkinson. “The winners are interesting, because they’re often new filmmakers with very individual voices”.

Sean Connery and Tilda Swinton at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Photo by Charlie Olsky.

This year’s winner, “Somers Town“, Shane Meadow‘s likeable, undisciplined sketch of the friendship between a transient Midlands youth and a Polish immigrant in a seedy neighborhood in London- was hardly made by a newcomer. Meadows has been showing the spirited side of working-class British youth in films like “TwentyFourSeven” and “This is England” for over a decade. “Somers Town” isn’t his best film- it plays a bit too much like sketchy improv- but the goofy performances by the lead teenagers and the lovely black-and-white photography of London help overcome the script’s weaknesses.

James Marsh‘s astonishing documentary “Man on Wire“, about daredevil Philip Petit‘s 1974 tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers, won the Standard Life Audience Award, and Robert Carlyle won “Best Performance” for his turn as a disturbed man with wasted promise in Kenny Glenaan‘s “Summer“.

Unrecognized by the jury, Duane Hopkins‘ debut feature “Better Things“, a look at the lives of aimless junkies in a depressed British town, was the best narrative in competition. Bearing more than a slight resemblance to Lance Hammer‘s Sundance standout “Ballast” (partially owing to a shared cinematographer), the film is heartbreaking when it allows moments of pure love and yearning to break through the bleak exteriors.

It’s a testament to EIFF’s esoteric nature that “Somers Town” and “Man on Wire” could run in the same competition against Olly Blackburn‘s suspenseful “Donkey Punch“, an exploitation film-par-excellence about a group of young adults whose boat trip goes horribly wrong when one of them commits the titular sex act. In case you’re wondering, mom, a ‘donkey punch’ is when a man engages in anal sex with a woman, and then punches her in the back of the head right before he climaxes, so that her muscular contractions heighten his sensation. No, mom, nobody ever actually does it, except maybe in the situation portrayed in the movie; the particular strength of “Donkey Punch”, in fact, is that every insane, blood-soaked turn it takes is weirdly plausible.

The jury prize for documentary went to Werner Herzog‘s lovely, doomed ramble on Antarctica, “Encounters at the End of the World“, but my own favorite was Gideon Koppel‘s “Sleep Furiously“, a pastoral Welsh elegy that recalls Nicholas Philibert‘s “To Be and to Have” in its quiet portrait of a perfect little country town that is slowly dying off. The film lets the viewers be hypnotized by each snippet of country life before providing small, precious surprises- most notably in the loveable form of the filmmaker’s mother, an animal lover who tearfully describes the death of her pet owl.

There were several world premieres in competition, including Christine Molloy‘s mesmerizingly creepy “Helen“, the story of an outcast who agrees to help police recreate the disappearance of a popular local girl, only to assume certain aspects of her life. It’s a deliberately paced study in mood, menacing and touching in equal parts. All of the luminaries of Scottish cinema were in attendance at the premiere of Charles Martin Smith’s “Stone of Destiny”, which recounts the real-life efforts of a plucky band of Scottish rebels who plotted to steal back the ancient title object from Westminster Abby, where it has been used for hundreds of years during coronations to represent English dominance over Scotland. It’s a broad-stroked Hollywood-style affair, wherein each character has precisely one personality trait (The Drinker, The Nerd, The Woman), but the crowd got into the adventure; the Scottish are nothing if not proud of their heritage, and it is, eventually, a winning little story.

“We’re known for finding new talent,” says Atkinson. “New British talent is a big deal not just in Britain, but in North America…. We’re a small country, but our language travels well, particularly to America. Directors who succeed here often have the option of working there.”

To that end, EIFF points to its talent development program Trailblazers, a showcase of new UK talent co-founded with government-sponsored UK media group Skillset. The program features showcases, networking and training sessions for film professionals across the board (actors, cinematographers, directors, etc.); earlier in the year, the program took 14 participants to the Tribeca Film Festival.

Says Skillset’s Dan Simmons, “We’ve been trying to position the Edinburgh Film Festival as the primary European film festival for discovering new talent, a focal point for the industry to identify emerging filmmakers.” He continues to say, “People like Samantha Morton, Daniel Craig– they got their first big breaks at this festival, so you have a history of breakouts. The Trailblazers program was about creating formal channels for that to happen.”

Veteran director Terrence Davies, a longtime critic of the UK film industry, gave hearty thanks to the EIFF after the UK Premiere of his poetic tribute to Liverpool, “Of Time and the City“. Though only marginally well known outside of Britain, the director was one of Edinburgh’s stars, and he was thrilled to receive the enthusiasm of the audience.

“I was delighted when I got into Cannes,” he said, “and even more delighted when we received such a good response… But it was Edinburgh that first accepted my film. They’ve always been the most supportive of my work, because my work is simply just so British, so completely British, and I don’t know if it translates elsewhere. I can’t imagine why anybody else wants to see it, but I know it has a home here.”

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