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Karma, Community and The Edinburgh Film Festival 2011

Off_the_Beaten_Track_largeProviding a write up for the Edinburgh Film Festival 2011, which came to a close yesterday, is not straightforward for me – Edinburgh is my adopted home of 28 years, and taking pleasure and pride in its cultural events is part of why it’s a great city to live in. But whether or not we wanted it, press coverage prior to the festival launch on 15th June was sharp, even nippy: the programme was not only slimmer, but possibly just thin and rather unappetising; contentious decisions had been made with regard to content as well as form – the omission of You’ve Been Trumped being the most glaring example; and a messy year of funding cuts and a departing director seemed to be finally taking their toll.

So it has felt like Edinburgh was being set up for a fall this year, even if it is the job of journalists to report barometer readings and keep organizers on their toes. The festival has sought to prove its worth on the international festival stage without the cosseting of the August culture extravaganza with its ready supply of tourists and visitors. But in doing so it is exposed to the harsher, very competitive world of film festivals, which are now in their thousands.  And so defining a festival and attracting what you want in terms of films or names becomes an ever-tougher task.

The early reporting options were twofold: join the criticisms and moan at some early shortcomings or alternatively, champion uncritically. But neither tack was going to help the cause of supporting the event.  Instead, I’ve waited till it’s all over, and opted for an appraisal based on what I, and others, saw and experienced. It’s not exhaustive research, but it’s a start. We all want Edinburgh to survive and flourish, so here’s an attempt to get beyond the carping and work out what happened over the last 10 days, but to be realistic about what may have to be faced given the tough climate it’s weathered during the last few months.

Documented Success

Firstly, the up side and what can be celebrated. Edinburgh was operating in conjunction with Sheffield for the first time this year to provide ‘joint premiere’ opportunities for documentary. This aspect of the programme was robust: as well as docs we’d seen in Sheffield – including Bombay Beach and Hell and Back Again - there were further strong inclusions: Project Nim, Shut Up Little Man, Sound It Out, Calvet, Mrs Carey’s Concert and Off the Beaten Track, were all name checked as solid and inspired film-making.

My Edinburgh preference was Off the Beaten Track  (above); a bucolic odyssey, with the tempo and beauty of an epic. It was a tale of a pre-industrial way of life now threatened by agri-industry in Romania.  Transylvanian shepherds accompanied their flocks along lorry-ridden roads to fresh pastures, revealling an agrarian world of genuine sustainability on its way.  With horses, donkeys and motley mongrels as the biblical entourage that trekked highways, dales and meadows in an attempt to maintain a way of life in the competitive and quota-determined world of EU membership, it was an exquisitely paced piece of direct cinema.

Fiction and the not-to-be-missed


The choice of feature movies, unfortunately, felt less satisfying. Once the horror movies and films about psychos were put to the side, it required a bit more application to sate the appetite.  The Guard was a very unambitious choice for a gala screening: big names do not necessarily great films make. John McDonagh introduced his self-penned and directed tale by firstly slating the director of the previous film he’d scripted in 2003 - Ned Kelly – calling it ‘a cliché ridden pile of bourgeois bullshit’. I’d rather he’d just kept the comments off stage the night we all sat down in the Festival Theatre, as one negative word could infect the DNA of any other words uttered or written and disrupt the already delicate ecology the festival was attempting to withstand. And, as McDonagh had wandered down the genre path of comedy cop thriller, I did wonder just how unclichéd he was hoping to be with his particular outing. Turned out he was turning them all out for The Guard anyway. Yes, there were some great actors and some nice turns in choreographing the inevitable set pieces of a face-off and a shoot out, but beyond that Brendan Gleeson’s over-written smart-arsed garda, romping at times, rather than just comedying, through Oirland, was definitely one for the multiplexes. McDonagh made himself a hostage to fortune, and was burned in the process with his hubris. I don’t care about bad blood between directors and writers when the tone of an opening night should be upbeat and celebratory – McDonagh should keep it for his movie memoirs.

And if a film festival is a celebration of the less available and the more challenging, there was Béla Tarr’s ostensible swan song, Turin Horse, to take in, with long, long one take shots, references to Neitzsche and black and white photography all keeping the art house expectations met. Tarr had presented us with a bleak allegory about the apocalypse, yet claimed it was a celebration of life in the Q and A. Tarr was droll and genial, so I can only surmise that Magyar sense of joie-de-vivre is one lost a little in translation. But the horse - forlorn and masterfully captured in motion in the fabulous opening sequence - was wonderful, out-acting the humans as a being weary with resignation and burden. The father and daughter principal characters swore I thought too much for allegory, and the horse’s non-speaking part was a nice counterpoint.

But a film that had the hallmarks of its director’s black, black sense of humour played to searing effect was Post Mortem (above, right) - another macabre, unflinching trip into the history of Chile’s political past by Pablo Larraín. Following on from his second feature - the twisted, bleak, but very smart Tony Manero - this was the one film which had to be seen at Edinburgh for its UK premiere. Larraín is conducting a cinematic form of forensic research into what happened to the soul of a country that unspeakably abused its own. This time it’s the autopsy theatre that Larraín presents as the proscenium through which we glimpse Chile’s descent into hell as the 1973 military coup brings mass murder in its wake - all while public servants dissect its victims and type up its reports. Alfredo Castro from Tony Manero is again cast as a protagonist stripped of any morality or responsibility with regard to his fellow citizens, utterly absorbed in his own desires and disrupted masculinity, while Larraín drives the story with bold, spare images and a cold, comedic eye. Every frame grips in Larraín’s films, with each character, object and word rich with meaning. This might still be art house but it’s utterly compelling and absorbing – it’s a film, like Tony Manero, that gets under the skin and stays there. For the unrepresentative poll conducted for this article, it was the film that came out top – and for those critics who I heard were sniffy about the films on offer at Edinburgh, it was a missed opportunity if they felt nothing was worthy of a trip to the city. 

Outside the auditorium

Edinburgh also provided industry events that offered delegates (already well-served if also at Sheffield) more opportunities to gain access to, and expert advice from, those in the know. The Docs in Progress slot was a chance for four commissioning editors invited for the event to become part of a reviewing audience for films at rough-cut stage. It was an alternative forum to have the much sought after time of people who call the shots. Tweets went out during the sessions as loving-it vibes complimented the comments of the commissioners who recommended tweaks and slants that will enhance chances of broadcast slots. The pace of the rather pressured pitch was slowed down enormously, and it was of benefit to everyone.

Meanwhile, Jon Reiss’s Think Outside the Box Office workshop tackled the hybrid approach to marketing and distributing film deploying the engage, converse and exceed expectations requirements of putting audience at the centre of film production. For film-makers who aren’t showing, film festivals are about much more than the films, and how to and how not to sessions are utterly invaluable. London Film Festival’s industry events tackle more of the content of film, but when you’re a maker, what you really want is the nuts and bolts, practicals and strategies. And Edinburgh was offering this, and along with Sheffield has an eye on how technology is changing the form and the economics of film.

If this is an area that Edinburgh can expand and boast about, it will snare the new generation of film-makers who want the fast track to the best advice and the buzziest names capturing the zeitgeist. But festivals are also about nurturing creative relationships and creating a community around film, and if I have beef with Edinburgh Film Festival, this is it. Sheffield Doc Fest exists for the film-makers, and one would hope that Edinburgh does too - as well as being there for fiction and doc film fans. One of the claims for this year was to take the event back to a place that was more about place: film showings throughout Edinburgh, for Edinburgh, encouraging different forms of participation beyond the captive August market. Talk of egalitarianism with red carpets binned promised a come one come all invite, and a spin giving it a specifically welcoming flavour: and why not a new approach when the cash that may permit easy glitz was no longer available? The withdrawal of UK Film Council money was bound to hit hard (almost £2million for 3 years’ support now gone).

And whilst we wish them well with inventive formats when a financial rug’s been pulled, I still don’t get why VIP rooms are requisite at opening parties. Delegates are also made to jump through hoops to get tickets for said-same opening parties and film, only to arrive at a gala screening that was half empty. They were trying to give away tickets outside. So much for getting back to brass tacks. Considering the rather hierarchical approach to organization and prioritizing, one is left wondering: who exactly does Edinburgh Film Festival exist for? 

A film festival is a celebration, and the people who attend do so as devotees, makers and fans. But if it attempts to maintain cachet through exclusion, it’s a creative shot in the feet: creatives work with other creatives, and film festivals are one way of meeting creative soul mates. And the people who pay money to attend as delegates are the creators of the industry of today and the future.  They are the festivals’ guests, and treating guests as second-class citizens is a position taken by organizers that baffled me throughout the entire event. We queued for so long for complementary drinks that networking was cut short or stymied, the music was often so bad we sought sanctuary outside and security staff over-scrutinised access even when people were wearing passes, and student passes were being demoted in relation to access as the event unfolded.

One got the feeling they were always waiting for something and someone better to turn up. So much for dispensing with stars-syndrome. James Mullighan may be the new face for this year’s festival, but the culture pervading was harking back to years when tabloid favourites were flown up at considerable public expense. The organizers don’t just need new money and a fatter programme, they need a new ethos where the words of welcome don’t ring hollow, and people feel there is a buzz around being there. Word was, there was no buzz this year. But when the hospitality feels like the host has better fish to fry, no wonder it left people feeling flat.

If the Festival’s changing, then it needs to be for the better, in all ways. It is 65 years old this year, and so is the longest running on the planet, so let’s think positive and be positive. But the Festival needs to do the same - it needs a different mind-set and a new spirit of engagement: not just with film itself, but with all the film lovers and makers who the future of the industry – and the Festival itself – depend on.