Programme notes

As the Edinburgh International Film Festival ends for another year, amid recriminations and denunciations, I thought I’d take a look at one aspect of its somewhat shrunken presence this year, extrapolating outwards to maybe establish a diagnosis of its ills…

Here we see the festival guide for 2011 sitting atop its equivalent from a previous year. Note the smaller size — an inevitable result, probably, of the massive loss in sponsorship this year. In fact, Fiona responded enthusiastically to the new “hand-bag-sized” book. And indeed, there’s no reason why the smaller size should be an insuperable problem.

But then we open the thing and search for content. And what we find is a seventy-five page delegate guide, with the films tucked away at the back. This offends me mightily — it makes the films seem like an afterthought, which indeed they appear to be. Worse, the guide provides no information beyond title, screening time, cast and crew. And there’s no index. And many short films, including mine, are not listed at all.

Now, every film accepted by the fest had to provide a synopsis, so there’s no reason at all why the guide couldn’t at least have included that. Space is not the issue, since shrinking or removing the delegate guide would have provided masses. What we have is a somewhat uncomfortable mix of two things, a list to help industry delegates find each other, and a catalogue of films screening. I take the view that the delegate guide should be a photocopied, hand-stapled document, to allow last-minute additions and corrections: completeness and accuracy being more important than gloss with such a document. And since you’re going to be giving it away free, why waste money?

The programme, catalogue, or souvenir guide should be another animal altogether. The fest has always struggled with this concept. Here are some older versions —

This early-ish manifestation (the fest is the longest continually-running film festival in the world) isn’t exactly glamorous, but hey, the sixties hadn’t started swinging yet. But it’s a clear, reasonably appealing guide, sold cheaply to patrons and packed with info to allow them to choose from the somewhat slender list of films. Interestingly, one of the movies on offer is THEY’VE STOLEN A BOMB, which I reviewed here.

A little later, and the magazine has shrunk to a chunky pamphlet, with a rather basic chevron motif as cover — an unappealing cover which the festival board stuck with for the next ten years. However, these were glorious years for programming, with a full engagement with the exciting cinematic events of the late sixties and early seventies. The booklets are just stuffed with interest, offering decent critical writing amidst the blurbage. The festival was also publishing books to accompany its retrospectives, with solid offerings on Corman and Tashlin and a rather notorious feminist reading of Walsh (not, it turns out, the most productive lens through which to view his work, or at least not the way it’s done here). We get a speedy retrospective on Michael Reeves following his tragic early death, and an admirable mix of high and low culture treated with equal respect. The festival has inherited from these days a tradition of screening midnight movies and cult shockers, but under Lynda Myles’ direction the fest addressed all this varied work with equal seriousness.

Lynda went on to become a successful film producer and is honoured with a plaque outside Edinburgh Filmhouse.

Image: Tilda Swinton in Derek Jarman’s THE LAST OF ENGLAND. Tilda is now a festival patron and collaborated with Mark Cousins and Lynda Myles in contributing ideas for this years festival — ideas which were mainly ignored.

But if you want a model for how a film festival should cope after a budget cut, you ought to look at Jim Hickey’s tenure as director. Jim inherited a festival which had lost a huge amount of its funding and had to shorten its run from two weeks (admittedly an insanely protracted schedule) to ten days. He responded by programming the restored cut of Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON with live orchestral accompaniment, the most expensive single event in the festival’s history thus far. (And unlike Coppola, they showed the whole thing. Coppola took it upon himself to prune the movie down, before introducing it in New York as the definitive restored and complete version, while Kevin Brownlow, who had actually restored it, fumed impotently in the audience.)

NAPOLEON came with its own souvenir programme, both a valuable piece of publicity and a source of revenue.

And here are some of the programmes from Jim’s years running the fest —

Using glossy stills from actual movies seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? David Byrne’s TRUE STORIES may not be a great film (it’s quite good fun though) but it makes for a superb cover image. This is a festival that’s really opening its arms to the public, as Glasgow Film Festival does now. This is the era  when I discovered the fest — I saw BLADE RUNNER, THE COMPANY OF WOLVES, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. Good entry-level stuff for an aspiring cinephile. Packed screenings. We only occasionally got film-makers in attendance, since funding was always a struggle and the festival’s profile wasn’t high enough to make it a popular destination for publicity junkets. But there were challenging retrospectives (Syberberg!) amid the high-profile screenings of E.T. et al.

The ensuing years brought directors David Robinson, Penny Thompson, Mark Cousins, Lizzie Franke, Shane Danielsen and Hannah McGill. All had their strengths and weaknesses, but a certain consistency in their approach to the souvenir programme can be detected — the book kept getting bigger, with more and more of interest to read, but the cover image tended towards matte abstraction rather than glossy illustration. During Mark’s years, the doorstop volume seemed to be written by whoever was around, with predictably mixed results. Shane’s programme was written entirely by Shane, from cover to cover. He did it very well (he also seemed able to teleport himself about the city in his tuxedo to introduce every single screening) but a little variety might have been nice.

Mark built upon an innovation of Penny Thompson’s, bringing in top technicians and artists to talk about their craft — I’ve enjoyed talks by Ken Adam, Stanley Myers, Anne V. Coates, Carter Burwell. This was great stuff, and corrected a problem of previous years, when filmmakers would often be in town to talk to the press but would be hidden away from the public. Alas, this fine tradition has been totally abolished this year, along with the Michael Powell Award for best British film, which was a useful lure to attract movies to screen here. And there’s been no central retrospective. A series of events and guest programmers has resulted in a scattershot approach, with quite a few comparatively undistinguished older films screening just because they fit some kind of theme, so we get MEMENTO and BRAINSTORM illustrating the subject of neuroscience…

I’ve seen some good films this year and had fun — the screening of my own CRY FOR BOBO was one of the nicest I’ve ever been at (almost Milan-like levels of enthusiasm) and the New Cinephilia event was delightful — so many film obsessives around me made me feel almost normal, and certainly underqualified to be speaking publicly on the subject, but it’s no surprise that audience’s have been down. The festival has not reached out to audiences, and has not offered its wares to them in an enticing way. A film festival needs to be about films — and audiences.

On my way home from the last day, I overheard a couple on the bus commenting on the modest festival display outside Filmhouse. “I’ve never been to a film festival screening,” said the chap. “I don’t know how a film festival screening would differ from a normal one.” It’s the role of next year’s director to answer that question.


16 Responses to “Programme notes”

  1. Danny Carr Says:

    A friend commented that they were looking forward to the festival finishing so they could get back to watching proper movies at Filmhouse. It’s a bad sign if the EIFF feels like a hiatus from Edinburgh’s normally pretty lively and “brainy” film culture.

  2. I kind of felt the same way, a little.

    There have been some vague noises about Edinburgh concentrating more on documentaries (it began as an all-docs fest) but it’s arguably too close to Sheffield in the calendar.

    And the docs seem to have been programmed to fit themes based on their subjects (as were some dramas), rather than on quality or on the name of the filmmakers — I always feel that the subject of a film isn’t really important, just a vehicle for its theme or an opportunity for formal innovation, so being overly influenced by subject betrays a lack of interest in film itself.

  3. As Editor of the Programme Book for the 45th Festival (under David Robinson, gosh: 20 years ago!), I agree with most of your comments and was worried about the potential state of the Programme Book for this year given the disaster the Festival was shaping up to be (I’ve only been able to watch from afar, unfortunately). It’s a desperate shame that the 65th year has been such a non-event. Running in June can’t help. Here’s hoping a new, energised Director can get things on track for next year: I may even be back in Edinburgh by then and able to enjoy it!

  4. If this particular year’s festival had run concurrently with the other fests in August, it would have been completely buried. The other advantage of June is we got a very good delegate centre which wouldn’t have been free any other time.

    But August would make sense because of the tourists attracted to the city for cultural reasons, because industry delegates would be attracted for the same reasons, because it’s further from Cannes, and because there’s the possibility of combining synergetically with the other fests.

  5. BTW the 45th Fest was the first I attended as a filmmaker, and I was thrilled you used a still from my short, The Three Hunchbacks!

  6. A Syberberg retro? Did they show Die Nacht ?

  7. Ha, David, funny how these things work out. re: Festival timing, I think Siobhan might be on to something in suggesting September (in SoS at the weekend). Perhaps right at the end of Aug/start Sept would allow the Fest to have its own identity while also benefiting from the August festival buzz… It might clash with Toronto, though…

  8. Oops, just checked that out David and the film is credited to “David Cairus”… :( Who knows at what point that error got into the process of putting the thing together! Sheesh!

  9. David E, they showed EVERYTHING.

    Brian, I’d forgotten the typo, so it obviously didn’t offend me too much.

    The festival calendar is very crowded — we certainly don’t want to hit Toronto’s spot, we wouldn’t be the winners in THAT confrontation.



    Ludwig: Requiem For A Virgin King is — as Fassbinder pointed out — a shameless rip-off of Werner Schroeter. Karl May – In Search of Paradise Lost ditto. Our Hitler is a shameless rip-off of Guy Debord and Robert Wilson (talk about you “shotgun marriages”!)

    Parsifal (more Wilson) I quite liked, particularly for Edith Clever’s performance as Kundry. Die Nacht is for the True Faithful.

    Was the old reprobate there? He’s positively ANCIENT by now.

  11. Ali Hardy Says:

    I have no idea why Cry For Bobo was screening. Must be nice for you, but it meant new filmmakers and new films didn’t get a chance. Stupid, said it all about this year’s programming.

  12. Ali, the idea of a “best of” selection of comedy shorts from previous years wasn’t a bad one, in my book — the screening was well attended and the audience loudly enjoyed it.

    But it’s unfortunate that so many good new shorts weren’t screened — there was a bumper crop at the Art College’s animation department, and some excellent work from my department (film & TV), and there must have been many good shorts from elsewhere too. The fact that many students and aspiring filmmakers paid money to submit shorts and then practically none were programmed is fairly deplorable.

    The idea of the Nokia Shorts Weekend was OK — grouping the shorts together and trying to generate some buzz. But I always feel at a film fest you should have added value — a short on with every feature.

  13. Former festival director Hannah McGill writes, via Facebook:

    “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!! (Gets back in box.)”

  14. Alex MacIan Says:

    Over the course of the several years that I was a part of the EIFF (as a delegate and reviewer) the focus seemed to change. Initially, as a delegate I was afforded a great deal of information about the films, in particular the foreign films and documentaries which helped me to be a more informed and objective (I hope) reviewer.

    In fact some of the films that became favorites of mine, I first observed at the EIFF. I have also built working relationships with directors and producers that I have met through reviewing films at EIFF. I felt that the festival provided not only a showcase for films and documentaries that might otherwise be out of reach, but was a very friendly and respectful gathering of people who had dedicated their lives to the medium.

    From my prospective, there was a real shift in focus when Halum Foe was released. The feeling changed from a celebration of great works of all shapes and sizes from around the globe to a celebration of celebrity. I don’t know how much money was spent on promoting the film at the EIFF in 2007, but it seemed that that single film overshadowed everything else.

    Instead of a festival celebrating film, it became a festival of fame. Who was going to the red carpet event? What famous starlet would be wearing what dress? Instead of viewing delegates and film makers as the life blood of the event, we were treated with suspicion or ignored all together. Unless you were A list, you were treated like an extra. I spoke with many people, delegates, staff, and film makers who felt stung in 2007.

    The following year was a real eye opener. The festival took on the feeling of the International Television Festival which is much more about stars and money makers and pitches. The little foyer of the Centre was full of tables touring location companies and reps trying to pitch equipment and film services.

    The docs and films seemed to take on a much more political tone as well. In previous years, particularly with foreign documentaries, there seemed to be some what of a balance in political representation. I walked away feeling that I got a glimpse at both sides of the story.

    In 2007 and 2008, perhaps due to the general attitude towards the US election coverage, the choices seemed, dare I say it….very one sided in favour of a liberal agenda. I found this somewhat irksome. Since the EIFF isn’t billed as a political film festival, the perceived one sidedness of the choices set poorly with me. I watched films and docs and said to myself “ok where is the other perspective?”

    I didn’t attend in 2009 due to a schedule conflict. But I knew a pretty fair number of people involved with the organization of EIFF. I heard time and time again, from people who had been on staff for years, that the new hiring focus was not on experience, but rather on connection. Unless you could help get some famous feet into the theatres, you weren’t considered a viable candidate.

    EIFF was a charming, cerebral, important festival. It was a place where film makers from around the globe felt courted and important and their works, no matter the genre, were treated with respect. Now, thanks to a perceived commercialization, film makers see it as just another festival in an already crowed film festival calendar, instead of something singular and special.

  15. Alex MacIan Says:

    whoops …crowded not crowed

  16. Interesting. I can remember red carpet events and celebrity craze from way back. I didn’t pay much attention to Hallam Foe and so didn’t particularly notice any change in attitude elsewhere.

    The pursuit of industry delegates is ironic since industry attendance has been on the decline. I was told the festival first got noticed after Priest sold for lots of money to Miramax. Everyone noticed it had been on at Edinburgh but no distributors were here to see it, so suddenly they started turning up. But it was always more chilled than the big marketplace festivals, for sure.

    I haven’t noticed any lack of friendliness — this year I made more friends than ever before (Hi Gerry & Angela, Kate, Damon, Michael, Eric, et al!). What I noticed was a shortage of interesting films.

    As for politics, I suspect the festival has always leaned to the left, and during the 2nd Bush administration a lot of liberal docs were made in reaction to the direction America was going in. I don’t think a film festival is required to show balance, it should just take care that all the films it screens are interesting, rather than just those whose views it shares.

    This year, Hell and Back Again is a curious case because even having seen it I’m not sure what political views can be ascribed to it…

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