Roger Shannon reports from the Edinburgh Film Festival where he finds independent productions in rude health.
Before going up to Edinburgh for the 62nd edition of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, I checked with film director Yugesh Walia when his first film Mirror, Mirror had screened at the festival. That had been my first visit to this long running and most prestigious of film festivals, as well as my first experience of film production.
Although having just returned from Los Angeles, where he, and brother Sunandan, had met the film studio heads and the Hollywood talent agencies , his memory was refreshingly non jet-lagged, and clear as HD – ‘It was August 1980, and Mirror, Mirror was selected for the main Programme.’
So in 2008, this would be my 28th annual pilgrimage to the Film Festival that legendary director John Huston once tellingly described as “the only Festival worth a damn.”
However, this year I wasn’t travelling up in August when the whole of Edinburgh is wrapped in the all encompassing ribbons and packaging of its International Arts Festival. I was making the visit in June.
The Edinburgh International Film Festival took a bold step this year. Not only did it shift its timing from August where it has been ever since I first tasted its smorgasbord of movies many years ago, but it also took on a new manifesto as a Festival of Discovery, which has been interpreted as an adventurous pitch to be a world-class festival in its own right – the “Sundance of Europe” – with formidable clout to propel new talent from the UK and beyond into international recognition.
Much like Robert Redford’s Sundance Festival in the United States has done for Independent Cinema (Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Harvey Weinstein, Miramax etc).
The festival, the world’s longest continually running film festival, has taken a casino sized gamble by detaching itself from Edinburgh’s famous international arts festival, which takes over every part of the Scottish capital in August – a cauldron of cultural tourism.
However, in June other venues can be used, new collaborations made, and the visiting film professionals can all book hotels and restaurants.
It’s a new way for the festival to breathe.
Moving the Edinburgh Film Festival to June is part of an emerging strategy for film festivals in the UK, spearheaded by the UK Film Council, from whom the Edinburgh Film Festival has been awarded £1.8 million over three years to achieve their new goals.
This strategy also has benefits for Birmingham, as the Flatpack Festival, creatively engineered by 7 Inch Cinema, was awarded £70,000.
This is richly deserved recognition for the magnificent 7 Inch Cinema who have developed organically from Birmingham’s filmic underworld sifting like cinematic archaeologists the city’s symbolic subconscious, while also importing film, video and digital gems from neglected troves. The Flatpack Festival will re-assemble next year.
The Edinburgh programme included a large British contingent, out in greater force than ever, with 12 of the festival’s 15 world premieres, and another dozen movies emerging from the domestic film industry. The opening film was the world premiere of John Maybury’s The Edge Of Love, the period romance about the tangled war time love life of the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, played by Matthew Rhys.
The film, in its style of taking a slice of time in the life of an artistic experimenter, is reminiscent of his earlier Love Is The Devil, a portrait of the artist, Francis Bacon.
Maybury brings his sensual palette and eye to 1940s blitzed London, and their less cramped lives in Wales.
Keira Knightley (whose Scottish mother Sharman Macdonald wrote the script) and Sienna Miller provided the star wattage at the red carpeted premiere.
Among the UK movies on show there was a definite Midlands bias, reflecting the growing maturity of regional film making, and film funding.
The closing film, this Sunday, is the British comedy, and director Vito Rocco’s debut film, Faintheart, which has been dubbed the first MySpace movie.
The director was chosen in a competition voted by on line participants on the MySpace social networking site, who then also had input into creative decisions.
Set among the world of battle re-enactment, and shot in the West Midlands with a top notch cast, it has been co financed by Birmingham based regional screen agency, Screen WM, reinforcing further their commitment to the democratising potential of the internet and emerging new talent.
Singled out by festival director, Hannah McGill, as a ‘possible UK discovery of the year’ is the film Helen, the exceptional first feature film by co writers and co directors, Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor, who are already known to Birmingham audiences through their participation in the Fierce Festival.
Part funded by Birmingham City Council, the film is about a woman who is psychologically affected when she plays a missing girl in a police reconstruction television show.
From the East Midlands came a number of movies by both established and debut directors. The prolific director, Shane Meadows, hot on the heels of the award garlanded This Is England screened Somers Town, a tale of innocence abroad as a cocky lad from Nottingham – played by Thomas Turgoose – escapes to the supposed ‘bright lights’ of London and mooches with new found friends around St Pancras.
Much interest was generated by the debut features of Martin Radich and Duane Hopkins, both backed by the Nottingham-based EM Media. Crack Willow, the feature debut of Martin Radich, moves from social realism to something more deranged, as a man’s life caring for his elderly father fractures into madness, while Better Things by Duane Hopkins is a multi-narrative drama depicting everyday life in a Cotswold town.
A painterly view of existence against a rarely seen rural backdrop, the film considers class A drug use in the town, revealing its inhabitants different approaches to life, love, loss and intoxication.
The festival also celebrated the UK low budget aesthetic now emerging from funding initiatives such as MicroWave in London, Digital Departures in Liverpool and Warp X in Sheffield. Mum and Dad, the first MicroWave film, is directed by Steven Sheil and cruelly satirises the glorification of “family values.”
Terence Davies’s Of Time and the City, about which he spoke in Birmingham last November, is an exceptional documentary that makes visionary use of archives in Davies’s autobiographical endeavour – a factual companion to his dramatic and acclaimed Distant Voices, Still Lives.
His film, a cinematic poem to the Liverpool of his childhood and early adulthood, is the first film from the Digital Departures slate, and a fitting filmic contribution to that city’s Capital of Culture year.
From Warp X the films Donkey Punch and A Complete History Of My Sexual Failures, both selected for this year’s Sundance Festival, signal how this Sheffield based company is taking ever more risks in its approach to UK independent film making.
With such films and film makers in abundance , the festival in its new slot has made an impressive step towards a new identity as Europe’s Sundance. And that will keep me going up there for another 28 years.