Edinburgh International Film Festival 2011

by Gareth Negus and Matthew Turner

Gareth Negus

This year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival has taken a battering  from some quarters, and a fair bit of that is justified.  But to write the whole festival off as a spent force, as some have done, is premature. Yes, there were things wrong with the festival this year. Yes, it lacked a clear direction and artistic vision.  But it deserves a chance to learn its lessons and start to rebuild.

Matthew Turner

What I found very frustrating is that the reports of “The Death of Edinburgh” in the press didn’t bear any resemblance to the behind-the-scenes stories I heard from almost everyone connected to the Festival. The comments under the Guardian article linked to above are very illuminating. Certainly everyone I spoke to put the blame squarely at the feet of “CEO” Gavin Miller (whose resemblance to Tom Hollander is highly amusing), though one of those same comments also points out that there’s actually a shadowy Edinburgh committee above Miller and they’re just as much to blame. Who’s on that committee? Why aren’t they taking some accountability? It’s very easy to say “learn its lessons and start to rebuild” but it sounds like there are some severe structural problems and the foundations need dynamiting first.

But let’s get to the important stuff. What about the films this year?

Gareth Negus

Of the 30 new films I saw (I also saw about 5 archive titles) 14 were good to excellent, 11 indifferent and 5 genuinely bad. I’d have to check the last few years’ catalogues to gauge whether that ratio has shifted significantly.  But I do think there were fewer films this year that created a genuine buzz – after the opening film, The Guard, only Troll Hunter really seemed to excite the public (you know, the people who support the Festival by actually buying tickets).

Part of that lack of buzz was due to the lack of celebrity glitz, caused by the financially-motivated decision to eschew big stars and red carpets. Want proof? Most people I spoke to after the industry screening of Perfect Sense thought it was a load of balls. But people I spoke to who had seen it at the premiere were much more positive. I assume they saw the same pretentious guff I did, so I’m attributing their greater enthusiasm to the fact that Ewan McGregor and company turned up to support it.

Matthew Turner

My ratio is even higher than yours – of the 29 new films I saw (I also saw 2 archive titles, plus four and a half more hours of Christian Marclay’s The Clock in Glasgow), 21 were 4 star films (very good to excellent), 5 were 3 star films (indifferent to good) and there were only 3 that I really didn’t like and even they were just not very good rather than one star stinkers.

I’ll have to check my lists too, but I can remember a much higher proportion of terrible movies in previous years, though that could be because I only saw 31 films this year instead of my usual average of 42 (except in the Festival’s 60th year where I saw 60 because it seemed like a good idea at the time – never again).

So what I want to say is this. It’s a well-publicised fact that the Festival failed to draw any big-hitters this year (such as, say, Cars 2, Melancholia, We Need To Talk About Kevin or One Day, all four of which would have been dead certs for inclusion in any other year) but once you accept that, the standard of what was left was actually extremely high. The problem is that it’s the big films that get the attention of the public in the first place – I heard at least one person say that they would normally be attracted to the programme by the big-hitters and would then search out the smaller films afterwards. I’m not sure how true that is overall though and I’d be fascinated to see some research in that area. I do know that the actual programme booklet itself was appallingly written this year and that several excellent films were given very poor write-ups as a result.

Gareth Negus

The programme overall showed clear signs of having been put together in a tearing hurry.  There were interesting strands and ideas, but they were often difficult to spot: the marketing was all over the place. Booking for things like the Inspace screenings became a challenge, as even the staff on the Filmhouse booking desk weren’t clear how to do it.

Abandoning the Michael Powell Award and the Cineworld were both retrogade steps. There were enough films in the programme to warrant the former, while the lack of the larger venue forced a number of events into wholly unsuitable venues. The BAFTA Scotland Interview with Bill Nighy sounds pretty grand, but while Nighy was great value the interview was held in the Teviot debating hall; the audience was left in rows of uncomfortable seats, craning for a glimpse of the man they’d come to see.  Even worse, the daily Filmmakers in Focus interviews took place in the Teviot cafeteria, with the sound of the staff clattering and chatting in the kitchen behind. The word ‘amateurish’ sprang to mind.

Matthew Turner

I think it’s fair to say that while the quality of the films was, to my mind, much better than the mainstream press would have you believe, everything else was a complete and utter shambles, from the marketing to the venues to the general organisation. It seems churlish to complain about the treatment of journalists this year (“Boo hoo! There weren’t as many parties as normal!”) when there were so many other more serious problems at hand, but the general lack of communication and, well, incompetence was astounding. It’s been mentioned elsewhere that the Festival hired a press team whose expertise lay elsewhere and had no connections to the film industry, but they could have at least put out responses and rebuttals or some sort of damage control to the what seemed like daily slew of Festival-bashing articles in the press

Also, I don’t know about you, but I’ve just counted and I received 14  emails, in total, from the press office while the festival was on and not one of them was any use. Compare that to previous years when you’d get a daily bulletin of events and be encouraged to attend all sorts of things. Quite apart from anything else this year, the relationship with the press was so toxic (“Fuck the press” was a frequent cry) that it seemed they wanted nothing to do with us. To give you an idea of how bad that relationship was, there were only two London film journalists up there for the whole thing this year and I was one of them.

Gareth Negus

Festival Director James Mullighan (pictured above) is the man often in the firing line, which is clearly unfair. Not only was he appointed quite late in the day, he was obliged to oversee a programme incorporating ideas from the guest artistic advisors and curators, which in some cases seemed pretty half baked. The Artistic Director role is to be advertised again imminently, and Mullighan has stated he intends to apply (though at this point I would hardly expect him to say anything else). Personally, I wish him luck; I only spoke to him briefly, but he seemed to be a pleasant chap.  Whether or not he turns out to be the best candidate is for the interviewing panel to judge, but I hope the CMI Board at least have the sense to appoint someone, be they Mullighan or someone else, in time to avoid another rush job.

Matthew Turner

I agree. To make Mullighan the scapegoat would be to miss the bigger picture and to fail to address the larger problems behind the scenes. That said, I heard several stories about his attitude to London distributors (consistently referring to them as “suppliers”, for one thing) that suggested he was at least in part responsible for the Festival failing to land any of the big films they wanted. How true that is though, I can’t say, but that doesn’t sound like the whole story to me.

Anyway, shall we do the awards and top fives now?

Tomboy

My own personal top five (which differs from the official version at ViewLondon thanks to a late entry) is:

1) Tomboy
2) Arrietty
3) Bobby Fischer Against The World
4) The King of Devil’s Island
5) Bombay Beach

Special mentions to: Albatross, Project Nim, Jitters, Troll Hunter and Oliver Sherman.

Gareth Negus

My top five are pretty similar, though I haven’t seen your fourth and fifth choices.  I went for:

1) Tomboy
2) Project Nim
3) Arrietty
4) Bobby Fischer Against the World
5) Albatross

The first four were definite, though fifth place could have easily have gone to Jitters or Mrs Carey’s Concert.

But now we take you live to the presentation of the inaugural Mostly Film Edinburgh Film Festival Awards.  First up: Best documentary.

Project Nim

Thanks in part to the Festival’s partnership with Sheffield DocFest it was a strong year for the form, with nominations via twitter for Convento and Bombay Beach.  Ultimately, it came down to a closely-fought battle between two tales of unusual figures who achieved prominence for their intellectual achievements during the 1970s; one a genius chess player, the other a chimp.  Both told their stories through a mix of interviews and archive footage.  In the end, Bobby Fischer Against the World was just beaten to the award by James Marsh’s Project Nim.  A fascinating, funny and extraordinarily moving story of the experiment to raise a chimp with a human family and study his communication ability, it makes for a gripping and sometimes troubling examination of our personal, and scientific, relationship with animals.

Next comes the Award for Best British Film.  There was never much doubt about this, and all the Twitter people who supplied their nominations were agreed – something I think demonstrates that this was not a great year at Edinburgh for British Films.  That said, I don’t want to take anything away from the film, which would have been a worthy winner of the Michael Powell Award, had it been held.  In that award’s absence, it falls to Mostly Film to present the award to Albatross.  Deliberately resonant of past UK successes (most obviously Wish You Were Here), it’s a fairly straightforward coming of age tale, but one blessed with fine performances and a sharp script.

Best International Film brought a wider range of nominations from the twitterati, including Norwegian found footage crowd pleaser Troll Hunter, Bela Tarr’s epic, gloomy Turin Horse, and the documentary Bombay Beach.  The Mostly Film judging panel (erm… both of us) variously found things to like about all three films, but ultimately the award goes to Tomboy.

Celine Ciamma’s follow up to Water Lilies is the story of a ten year old girl who impulsively claims to her new neighbours to be a boy.  Very much a film about children for adults (though not exclusively; it could be used in schools) it features believable performances from all the children, most of all the plausibly androgynous Zoe Heron as Laure.  It’s a moving yet unsentimental film that deserves a wider audience.

The judges predict a bright future for Jessica Brown Findlay

The judges then turned their eyes to the Jessica Brown Findlay Award for Best Newcomer.  Nominations also included two directors – Hiromasa Yonebayashi (Arrietty) and Niall MacCormick (Albatross), but there was never any real doubt as to the winner.  Jessica Brown Findlay – previously known, if at all, from Downton Abbey – makes the most of the terrific, eye-catching role in Albatross as Emilia, the budding writer who blasts into the family of new best friend Felicity Jones. Nobody who saw the film was in any doubt that this is the start of what ought to be a big career for her.

Finally, the Mostly Film Audience Award, voted for by users of Twitter.  This sees a further award go to Tomboy.  There were also creditable showings for four other films, including Studio Ghibli’s charming Mary Norton adaptation, the Norwegian horror comedy, and two documentaries.

1) Tomboy
2) Arrietty
3) Troll Hunter
4) Calvet
5) Project Nim

That, I think, is evidence that Edinburgh did manage to deliver a range of high quality films this year, despite the evident problems.

Matthew Turner is the film reviewer for ViewLondon and his coverage of the Edinburgh Film Festival can be found here

Gareth Negus tweets at twitter.com/GarethNegus

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8 thoughts on “Edinburgh International Film Festival 2011

  1. While you were both in Edinburgh, was there any indication that they’re realised that moving the Festival to June was a mistake? It’s obviously impacted their ability to pick up the best films, and their original excuse of “the hotels are too crowded in August” doesn’t hold water if so few people are attending. Plus, most importantly, if they don’t hold it in August I can’t come.

  2. Interesting piece, and sounds like some films there I will want to catch on release.

    However, the one thing which you do not mention (but which both the Time Out and Graun articles you link to briefly do) is the issue over the timing of the festival.

    What would be good to hear from the EiFF is an admission that the move to June failed, that it was a mistake in the first place and it did not achieve the stated aim.

    To remind people, when Hannah McGill took over as director, she proposed the move to June in order to raise the EiFF’s profile by taking it away from the crowded August festival time. The idea was that it would be easier to get hotel rooms and other facilities. So the plan seemed to be to make EiFF more industry focussed, and with more red carpets.

    But it was, to my mind, always doomed. The August timing helped EiFF pick up films from Cannes, and also meant it was part of one of the world’s greatest cultural events, when many thousands of people throng to Edinburgh to experience a wide variety of arts and culture. OK, so those of us going up for multiple festivals did not give EiFF the attention we might give, say, the LFF. But the EiFF would also pick up people who were there primarily for other festivals. August in Edinburgh is a unique experience, and being part of that gave EiFF a lift.

    So, how did the move to June actually go? Did it become the big industry rival to Cannes? Of course not. Has anyone actually admitted that they tried that and failed? Of course not. As in any business, management never own up to their mistakes. Quietly the focus changed, saying “we’ll give you a new type of Festival” without admitting that the reason was that they’d tried and failed in the previous aim.

    I named Hannah McGill there as she was the public face of the decision to move to June. I don’t know who actually made the decision – whether it was Hannah, a faceless committee, or all of them together – but it was a wrong decision.

    As a frequent attendee of the Edinburgh Festivals in August, I have not been to the EiFF since it moved to June. If it moves back to August, I would look forward to being able to take in some films in my Edinburgh week again. It is what needs to happen. That, and to get a director in who cares passionately about films and the festival. Shane Danielson was a frequent face at the festival when he was director, and the EiFF needs someone like him again.

    1. A lot of people were asking about August (as they do every year), and it certainly would have my vote. James Mullighan in interviews seemed to be hedging his bets, basically taking the line that if the CMI Board decide to go back to August, that’s what they’ll do. Possibly it depends on which Board members took the decision in the first place and whether they’re still around…

      The other date which was mentioned was the end of July. I’m not sure if this would be either the best or worst of both worlds.

  3. The CMI committee are listed in the festival guide.

    One other thing nobody mentioned, because it’s kicking a man when he’s down, is that The Cameo’s poorly timed lavatory arrangements put off many potential female patrons.

    And say what you like about Bill Nighy at the Teviot, but at least it was presented in a competent audio-visual manner, which is something Cineworld hardly ever managed. Any talk about bad relations between the festival and the industry might care to wonder if Graham King was a bit pissed off by the house-lights going up and down for 15 minutes while he was talking. Ask Hannah about her Samantha Morton interview, I expect she still has nightmares.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Auntie June. I’ll admit I wasn’t at the talks you mention, but I don’t recall experiencing any problems like that at the Cineworld (though no venue is perfect…). And at least you could see the interviewee properly.

  4. Very much enjoyed the stat-porn at the start of this article. I want a pie chart of good/indifferent/poor for the LFF, though!

  5. I’m wary of speaking for people I know in real life but I think it’s safe to say that Hannah McGill wasn’t personally responsible for the decision to move to June. There did certainly seem to be a much louder call for the move back to August this year. I am not convinced it would be the answer to the Festival’s many problems though and I heard a fair few people say they didn’t want it to move back, for a variety of different reasons. Yes, the move to June hasn’t worked out the way it was intended to, but let’s not pretend that was the reason they couldn’t land any big films this year.

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