The Edinburgh Dialogues #2: Hannah McGill

Number two in my series of conversations with former directors of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. These unsung heroes, toiling in the service of cinephilia, don’t often get the attention they deserve. What we’re attempting here is a look back, clear-eyed and free of nostalgia, but with affection where appropriate, and a look forward, boldly and imaginatively.

Hannah McGill ran the EIFF from 2007 to 2010, putting on retrospectives on such filmmakers as Shirley Clarke, Anita Loos, Jeanne Moreau, and also After the Wave, an estimable event celebrating those filmmakers who followed the British New Wave of the sixties — this series appealed to me so much I wrote about it here, here and here.

Hannah supervised the fest’s move from its August slot in the midst of the Edinburgh International Festival, Edinburgh Book Festival, and Edinburgh Festival Fringe, to a June position where it stands virtually alone on the stage — audiences rose the year of the move, aided by an influx of cash for events and publicity.

I asked Hannah most of the same questions I asked Mark Cousins, knowing full well I’d get entertainingly different answers –

1) Favourite/oddest moments of being Festival director.

Hannah: This will be a bit random because there are many, many scattered moments.

Meeting John Waters and Bela Tarr, and introducing them to each other – that was cool.

Laughing so much interviewing Judd Apatow onstage that I stopped being able to speak.

Telling award-winners that they’d won was always absolutely lovely, as was the awards ceremony itself.

Being stopped by strangers who wanted to gush about something they’d seen and loved.

Full houses for our Jeanne Moreau retrospective. All our retrospectives, in fact – that was a special thing because it took so much research and hunting down of prints; it was so satisfying to get it up onscreen.

Seeing the red carpet at the Festival Theatre in 2010 – the beauteous culmination of much labour and stress.

Introducing the Under the Radar strand and meeting extraordinary filmmakers through it like Rona Mark, Zach Clark and Martin Radich.

Cinematographers: Seamus McGarvey, Chris Doyle, Roger Deakins, Antony Dod Mantle.

Happy late nights in the Filmhouse bar when I should have been well asleep.

Roger Corman, Ken Russell, Clair Denis, the Quay brothers. People who were just utterly charming and sweet, like Sir Patrick Stewart, and people who were hilarious, like Stellan Skarsgaard.

I shall not list individual films, for we shall be here all day and also I may cry. 

2) Worst aspect of the job.

Hannah: Unpredictability, of everything. 

Also: it can feel thankless, because everyone wants different things from it, and people tend to have very strong, angry opinions about it – which are often unencumbered by knowledge of how festivals and the film industry work. There’s this received wisdom peddled by the Scottish press that the film festival ought to be Cannes, and by not being Cannes, evidently isn’t trying hard enough.

Well, Cannes has roughly a 30 million euro budget; happens alongside the world’s most massive film market; and doesn’t admit ordinary paying public. (And actually, when you’re there, is kind of a massive stressful faff a lot of the time). Building Cannes to the stature that it has in industry terms took many decades of massive investment.

So kneejerk, ill-informed criticism of that nature was always galling. As was the ‘can’t win’ factor – in the same year, you get picked at for having not enough celebrities and too many celebrities; not enough obscure art films and too many obscure art films. There’s a weird resistance to the idea that the point of a festival is variation and range. The audience seem to get that rather more than the press, who are always looking for a quick editorial line – and in Scotland, usually want to find a negative one. Often, you’re being slated for things that are just part of the reality of any film festival: variable screening facilities; films of different styles and quality; some films that are there for primarily commercial reasons; films that prove unavailable; guests that cancel. The standard you’re being held to – an uninterrupted flow of undiscovered, commercially appealing, artistically flawless works, all ready for release at the same time, supported by celebrity casts who are eternally available and pay for their own plane tickets out of the sheer love of film! – is a fantasy.

You do have to rise above press quibbles, but I think there are serious consequences: the fact of the festival being so picked on for what it’s not, rather than celebrated for what it is, has had an effect on its sales and its standing. Last year a London journalist criticised the festival for having too many big commercial films. This year, the same journalist declared it a failure again, because…? No big commercial films. I bit a hole in my newspaper. (Except I didn’t, because I was reading it online, for free, the better to hasten the demise of print journalism. Ha ha ha.)

3) What would you recommend to improve the festival next year?

Hannah: I recommend that it be run by a consortium of Scottish arts reporters: they know how to make it PERFECT. No. Not really.

Just an empowered artistic director, with a full year to prepare a programme, and realistic ambitions clearly conveyed by the messaging. An acceptance, confidently embraced and properly expressed, that the financial climate and the changing film distribution world mean that the festival IS going to alter and evolve, and not turn into a multi-million pound extravaganza overnight, or go back to exactly how it was in 2003 or 1985 or 1972. 

4) The move to June.

Some facts re June as there is a lot of disinformation abounding out there: the move had been discussed for years (was in fact first proposed by M Cousins in the 90s).

The Board and management decided to pursue it in 2008, on the basis that Edinburgh was utterly overloaded in August (it is); that the tourist intake to the city weren’t coming to the film festival, whereas local and rest-of-Scotland audiences were staying away due to general August fatigue (also true); that hotels and transport and venue space were all jam-packed and overpriced (they are); and that the festival had no space to grow and establish itself as a significant international film event as long as it was seen as an adjunct of the other fests (I habitually used to get asked ‘do you programme all that theatre as well?’!!).

Arts pages were also completely overstretched, and the film fest didn’t get the coverage it merited. Also from a programming pov, August was crap. Blockbusters taking up multiplex space, whole of Europe on holiday, MUCH too close to the London film festival.

We canvassed distributors and the bulk of them thought it was a great idea. And that was why we decided to try moving.

Sorry to witter on, but I am sick of the press talking as if it happened for no good reason!! 

In addition: I can see why there are arguments for moving back, because people are sentimental about the August date, and Edinburgh’s exciting then. Also, the move to June by Sheffield, and Sundance doing a July event In London in 2012, are both new pressures on June. But the reasons we moved still stand. And next year, aren’t there some Olympics in August? Would you want to be going up against that??

Well, I hate sport, so I’d welcome a distraction while all that jumping around is going on, but I can see it might have an adverse affect on attendance…

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6 Responses to “The Edinburgh Dialogues #2: Hannah McGill”

  1. Fabulous interview of a teriffic person.

  2. Hannah’s a hero. I’m not sure what she’s working on at the moment but I hear rumours about a book…

  3. I was in Edinburgh for the month of August of 1990 and don’t remember seeing any notices or hearing anyone mention that there was a film festival going on. It may have been the nonstop samba drumming on the streets, beating sense out of my head, but I think it was more a case of the festival getting swamped by Fringe flyers, advertising, etc.

  4. Yes, that’s exactly what happens. Every surface gets covered with fly-posters, so the ability to register on the public consciousness was always limited. Those who look for it can find it, but you might not know it was there, otherwise. I didn’t know it existed until my teenage years.

  5. judydean Says:

    Everything she says is perfectly sensible. I went every year under her directorship, and found plenty to enjoy. I couldn’t rouse myself to go at all this year, I found the programme so disappointing. How sad.

  6. There was good stuff on, but it didn’t seem to add up to an exciting programme. Partly the result of the guide being poorly put together, but partly because of… well, we’ll get into that later…

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