17-28 June 2009

The pleasingly weird phenomenon of emerging from a darkened cinema into the jarringly bright sunlight of the “real” world is one with which all cinephiles become familiar from an early age. Less common – and therefore even more sense-jumbling – is the experience of exiting the kino after a late-evening screening, expecting pitch-dark skies overhead and instead discovering an overhead wash of persistent, milky-blue twilight.

When the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) moved from August to June back in 2007, it’s unlikely that the brightness of midsummer skies was much of a factor in the decision. But now that EIFF, which this year ran from June 17th to 28th, neatly straddles the summer solstice (usually 21st June), the paleness of night skies (if unclouded) can surely be counted an inadvertent “Fringe” benefit (pardon the pun), perhaps even a ‘Unique Selling Point’ for the film festival’s hard-working marketing team to consider. After all, St Petersburg, which is only three degrees of latitude further north than its similarly-eyecatching and historic Caledonian cousin, has always made considerable ballyhoo about its late-June “white nights”.

Of course, relative “locals” such as myself (I live 120 miles south in Sunderland on England’s north-east coast) often take such low-key natural glories for granted – and I have to admit I’d never really pondered Edinburgh’s light-sky phenomenon until I heard that one of this year’s jurors, Frank Langella, had remarked upon it shortly after his arrival. Then again, considering how he first came to prominence by playing Dracula – on Broadway and then on film via John Badham’s ill-received 1979 adaptation – it’s understandable that the veteran actor should be particularly sensitive to such details.

Three paragraphs gone, and I realise that I haven’t yet mentioned the title of a single film showing at Edinburgh this year. Truth be told, for me this wasn’t a vintage edition of what is (as that marketing team never fails to remind everyone) the film festival which has been continually running longer than any in the world: the first event, in August 1947, took place a couple of weeks before Venice resumed after its wartime interruption. Originally dedicated to documentaries – particularly Scottish ones – the festival quickly developed into a more general international showcase of cinema, and is currently, along with London, one of the two main film festivals in the UK.

But neither London nor Edinburgh can claim the kind of global prominence that’s long been associated with the likes of Cannes, Venice, Berlin or Toronto – within Europe, they’re more on a level with Vienna, Rotterdam, San Sebastian, Gothenburg and Locarno. Pretty respectable company, all the same.

Because of its relative proximity, I attend Edinburgh every year – and have done so ever since driving up and down in a day to catch the UK premiere of Lost Highway in 1997 (scything through the pitch-dark Northumberland countryside towards midnight providing the perfect coda to the screening.) The first two June EIFFs – which also happened to be the first two festivals organised by Artistic Director Hannah McGill – gave me my first glimpse of three new (i.e. non-archive/retrospective) films apiece that I’d rate as outstanding (i.e. 8/10 or higher, according to the scale I employ over at Jigsaw Lounge.

From 2007: Control (Anton Corbijn), Mang Shan (Blind Mountain, Li Yang) and Yella (Christian Petzold). From 2008: Geomen tangyi sonyeo oi (With a Girl of Black Soil, Jeon Soo-il), Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog) and Of Time and the City (Terence Davies.) From 2009, the only one I’d place in the same category – from 24 new films that I saw in whole or in part – was Sylvie Verheyde’s Stella, more of which anon.

Mary and MaxOf course, this isn’t any kind of scientific sample – and no doubt my impression of the festival would have been rather different if I’d managed to catch (to name just a single bulging handful of the more notably admired titles on view) Adam Elliot’s Mary and Max, Orhan Eskiköy and Özgür Doğan’s On the Way To School, Dominic Murphy’s White Lightnin’, Aliona van der Horst’s Boris Ryzhy (which won the prize for the festival’s best documentary feature), Martin Provost’s Seraphine, R. J. Cutler’s The September Issue, Noah Buschel’s The Missing Person and Arvind Sinha’s King of India. (It’s somehow naggingly poignant to realise, by the way, that I’ll almost certainly never see every single movie on that little list.)

But I can only comment on the films that I did see, either in whole or in part, at Edinburgh 2009 – and I hope the reader won’t mind if in the rest of this article I include a couple of pictures which I didn’t actually catch at the festival itself, but had previously seen elsewhere. Among the double dozen new features I saw in one of the event’s three venues – the venerable Filmhouse on Lothian Road and equally old-school Cameo not far off on Home Street, plus the multiplex Cineworld a brisk 15 minutes away at Fountainpark (more of which anon) – I reckoned eleven to be not really worth the bother, including three that I walked out of not long after the 40-minute mark.

This was my eighth EIFF as a “working” critic. Since 2002, the only time I’ve seen less than 24 films was in 2006, when I could only attend for a few days and concentrated almost entirely on retrospective titles (ah, the bliss of Mitchell Leisen!). This year there did seem to be rather more in the way of what I’d call sub-par films on view, and perhaps also rather less movies that I’d put into, or close to, the “must-see” category.

Then again, looking back at my verdicts on the films I saw at the most recent renewals of both Berlin and Rotterdam would suggest that Edinburgh is in fact holding its own in terms of northern Europe’s other leading festivals. Nevertheless, I did get the nagging sense this year that there were fewer sparkling discoveries scattered through the program, especially when it came to the British movies on view (all three of my walkouts were, I’m afraid to say, homegrown efforts: Jan Dunn’s The Calling, Matt Hulse’s Follow the Master and Caroline Paterson & Stuart Davids’ Wasted.)

EIFF isn’t, then a festival in “crisis”, or anything like it. It received £1.88m in funding from the UK Film Council in 2008, to be spent over three festivals – money which therefore runs out in 2010. At the time, McGill, who has been trying to position Edinburgh as a “festival of discovery”, perhaps the European equivalent of Sundance, commented that the cash-injection “recognised EIFF’s national and international significance and out potential to grow. This support will enable our development, and our ability to make a bigger impact in the UK, Europe and beyond.” Has this happened? There are international visitors – some from quite far afield – at Edinburgh in June for the film festival. But when I’m at Rotterdam and Berlin, Linz and Lisbon, the European festivals I attend in the first third of the year, the only people who seem to have Edinburgh on their agenda are the Brits.

And now we have the global financial crisis to contend with, which will inevitably restrict the amount of travelling done by festival-organisers and international press – hell, it’s already restricted the numbers of festival-organisers and press. This, allied to the likelihood of a Conservative government – whose attitude towards arts funding has traditionally ranged from the suspicious to the downright hostile – could perhaps combine to cast a slight shadow over the future progress of EIFF towards achieving its aims.

But if there are clouds and shadows on the Scottish festival’s horizon, there are also plenty of silver linings and glimpses of potential sunshine around the corner. Being in Edinburgh means that EIFF is part of Scotland as much as it is part of the United Kingdom – and the Caledonian nation, while some way off independence, has a vibrant devolved government under the Scottish National Party, not to mention a culture that takes culture of all sorts admirably seriously (whereas film critics south of the “border” are losing their posts with grim regularity, it’s a different matter for their Scots brethren.) EIFF’s ticket sales stayed steady from 2006 to 2007 and 2008, and posted an increase in 2009 – and the audiences are notably keen, erudite and adventurous.

And then there’s EIFF’s unique history and tradition, which very few festivals elsewhere can match. At the end of this report I’ll humbly offer a few specific suggestions which might perhaps be worth considering as Edinburgh International Film Festival strides on towards its eight decade. But for now, ah yes – the films. I’ll start with the world premieres, then move on to the international/European premieres, then finally take in some of the UK premieres – the festival now doesn’t program anything that any other festival in the country (the United Kingdom, that is, not Scotland) has shown before.

As it happens, the best of the world premieres I caught at Edinburgh 2009 was filmed almost entirely within the confines of the city. Cracking psychological-thriller-cum-black-comedy Crying With Laughter is the (somewhat belated) debut by writer-director Justin Molotnikov – a most entertaining, engaging, likeably confident affair that’s a cut above the vast majority of domestic films here at what’s become the biggest annual showcase of British cinema.

And whereas so many British films founder on grounds of unneccessary melodrama, contrivance, implausibility and coincidence on the script front, Crying With Laughter actually manages to turn those elements to its advantage. That’s because the whole film is, in effect (and in a variation of the oft-misunderstood narrated-extravagance technique most prominently seen via Zack Snyder’s 300), the illustration of a stand-up “routine” by its protagonist Joey Frisk (Stephen McCole). Frisk is an Edinburgh comedian on the brink of breaking into the big time – but while he’s successful and confident on stage, away from the spotlight it’s a whole other matter. And when he makes an ill-judged crack about a former schoolfriend, he ends up in a whole stew of blood-spattered trouble.

A synopsis of Crying With Laughter‘s plot developments would make it sound like a typically convoluted, over-dramatic Brit-pic. But by putting all of this in the context of Joey’s act, barrelling the story along with frenetic gusto, and building the whole thing around McCole’s terrific performance (yes, he really is The New Brian Cox – spooky that they shared scenes in, of all things, Rushmore), Molotnikov more than gets away with it.

Why is McCole so outstanding here? Well, it’s partly because he’s so utterly convincing as a stand-up (to the extent that I’m seriously considering going back up to Edinburgh to see him take the stage, in character, during the Fringe in August), and partly because of how he socks over Joey’s charisma, vulnerability and cockiness, so that his (hackneyed-on-paper) progress from obnoxious, solipsistic schmuck to something resembling decent-bloke normality keeps us watching every step of the way. It’ll be a profligate waste of resources if British cinema doesn’t employ him to best advantage from now on – and it’ll be a real shame if Crying With Laughter ends up going straight to DVD here. At the time of writing, however, it’s still without a UK distributor (and I write in a week that has seen Jack Perez’s “inept monster mash” Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus arrive on a “selected” number our screens, almost entirely because of its trailer’s cult status via YouTube.)

Le Donk & Scor-zay-zee (2009)Molotnikov is not – yet – a particularly “known” name, even among aficionados of current UK cinema. At the other end of the “brand-name” scale is Shane Meadows, who won the Michael Powell Award (for Best British Feature at EIFF) last year for the very lovely Somers Town. He was back in Edinburgh to unveil his latest scrappy no-budgeter: a film near universally referred to as Le Donk, but which is actually called Le Donk & Scor-zay-zee (technically speaking, the full title, as shown at the start of the picture, is Le Donk & Scor-zay-zee aka Nicholas and Dean.)

Marking Meadows’ reunion with his star/muse/sometime co-scriptwriter Paddy Considine for the first time since 2004’s devastating Dead Man’s Shoes, it’s a scruffily genial, likeably unassuming throwback to their early-90s “amateur” video shorts, rough-edged, shot-on-the-fly no-budgeters that were a matter of mates larking about than anything else. Le Donk, reportedly shot on five days, is a mock-documentary in the Christopher Guest vein about an obnoxious roadie (Considine) and his rapper protege ‘Scor-zay-zee’ (playing himself, it seems). Le Donk (somewhat implausibly) gets a gig with the Arctic Monkeys (who pop up now and again) and sees a chance for his chubby young charge to make a name for himself.

The dopey shenanigans are essentially a showcase for Considine’s improv-comedy skills – which are, luckily for all, pretty impressive, as he proved during a raucously upbeat Q&A after the sole public screening. At the moment Le Donk has no plans for a cinematic release (it’s apparently out on DVD in October) – but the same was said about Somers Town last year, until it walked off with the Powell. Le Donk isn’t anywhere near that league, but it’s still funnier than the majority of comedies which get multiplex exposure, and if any filmmaker has earned the right to blow off a little steam with his pals, it is – after the triple-whammy of Dead Man’s Shoes, This Is England (his box-office breakthrough) and Somers Town – Uttoxeter’s finest.

World-premiering Le Donk & Scor-Zay-Zee represented something of a coup for the EIFF organisers, but there were also a sprinkling of domestic debuts which should find their niche at festivals over the next few months. Debutant director Lindy Heymann’s Kicks, from a script by Leigh Campbell (itself based on an unproduced screenplay by regular Michael Winterbottom collaborator Laurence Coriot) exceeded expectations. Indeed, the first half – in which we’re introduced to a pair of twentyish Liverpool lasses (Nichola Burley, Kerrie Hayes) who lust after a star local footballer (Jamie Doyle), and are horrified to learn of his imminent move to Madrid ­– had me wondering whether the picture might turn out to be one of the finds of the festival. An atmospheric, slyly topical character-study of young women whose chief aspiration is to be a ‘WAG’ (the British tabloids’ term for footballers’ Wives And Girlfriends), these early stretches played a bit like a cross between Pawel Pawlikowski’s My Summer of Love (a previous Powell victor) and Pat Holden’s much-ballyhooed Wirral-hooligans wannabe-epic Awaydays, with the girls and their Merseyside milieu very deftly sketched via slick digital cinematography and melancholic, yearning synth-electro pop.

Such a shame that when push comes to shove and the script buckles down the business of getting the plot into gear – via a King of Comedy style scenario in which the footballer (Doyle’s lines are conspicuously and distractingly dubbed) ends up becoming the girls’ helpless captive – things go downhill so quickly. As with so many British movies at the moment, skilled directorial and technical contributions – plus a couple of strong performances – were fatally undermined by scriptwriting deficiencies (including the clumsy integration of a gun to raise the stakes in the latter stages.)

TV’s The Apprentice, meanwhile, gets a futuristic re-imagining via in-demand scriptwriter Stuart Hazeldine’s tense directorial debut Exam. In a windowless, moodily lit room eight candidates vie for a high-powered position at a multinational bio-tech company. The camera barely leaves the single set, and the necessary claustrophobia is efficiently developed and maintained as each candidate tries to get an advantage over the others – or, ideally, to get them disqualified from the “game”. It’s a smart little picture, nothing if not topical, though the script isn’t quite as airtight as it might have been and proceedings might have been more satisfying if steered down more nightmarish/horror-movie avenues. Vincenzo Natali’s inventively grisly Cube (1997) remains the best example of this specific sub-genre, while Hazeldine, whose adaptations of John Christopher’s Tripods novels are building steady anticipation in Hollywood and fan-boy circles, displays a working knowledge of both Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos and Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Das Experiment. This sub-genre always places enormous emphasis on the performers and it’s to these actors’ credit that they make their nameless characters convincing and credible here, with the swaggeringly solipsistic bad-apple charisma of Luke Mably – previously a forgettable presence in youth-oriented fare – dominating both group and film.

A rather different kind of ensemble-piece was on offer – albeit from another filmmaker with “Hollywood’ connections” – via Mary Sweeney’s Baraboo. It’s unfair to bring too much biographical background to bear when considering a work of creative art, but the film is chiefly of interest due to Sweeney’s background as David Lynch’s longtime editor and romantic partner. She left him during the making of INLAND EMPIRE – just after they’d gotten married, as it happens – which meant he had to edit the thing himself. With somewhat unfortunate results.

Baraboo takes place in one of those “ordinary”, quite old-fashioned tiny towns that often crop up in Lynch’s work – located in the sweetcorn-producing part of rural Wisconsin. Sweeney seems to take particular care to treat the characters simply as ordinary folks living ordinary lives – without Lynch’s trademark subcurrents of sinister phantasmagoriana. Instead, she’s tried to craft a quiet paean to neighbourliness – but what she ended up with is rather like a pilot for a TV series you’d never actually want to watch. Overlong at 100+ minutes, what the picture really needs is the editing attentions of a “Mary Sweeney” – not the actual Ms Sweeney, who serves as her own editor. Baraboo, though not without its low-key charms, is yet another illustration of why writer-directors, especially debutants, shouldn’t serve as their own cutters.

GialloOf the other world-premieres, Dario Argento’s Giallo was perhaps the most surprising to find in the EIFF lineup. Expectations were generally low among attendees, but having caught Argento’s previous picture, 2007’s La terza madre (The Third Mother, aka Mother of Tears), in Austria a couple of months before, it did seem like the old genius/madman might well be entering a late-career reflowering. Unfortunately Giallo – starring Adrien Brody in a gimmicky double role (that’s not really a spoiler, as the casting adds nothing to the movie) – adds little support to such a hypothesis. A half-baked cop-vs-psycho thriller set in Turin – Argento clearly still knows his way around the city, having shot the likes of Profondo Rosso (Deep Red) there – it shows only occasional flashes of Argento’s usual outre stylistics, and has numerous hallmarks of the “troubled” production that by all accounts it was.

Giallo is – I’m reliably informed – technically a British production, not that you’d ever guess it from anything in the movie. All too obviously products of these islands, however, were my three walkouts: Follow the Master, Wasted and The Calling – and only torpid inertia stopped me doing the same with Brian Percival’s drab A Boy Called Dad. And it’s not just me – a programmer for a leading northern European festival told me she’d spent the whole of a day in the videotheque combing through new British features, and was stunned by the parade of mediocrity on display.

For many years Edinburgh has been the showcase for new British cinema, and I can see the rationale in such a (fairly) unique selling-point. But this does mean that some below-par efforts are sometime placed in an unforgiving spotlight. And then there are the numerous refusniks languishing in the videotheque, British films which the festival couldn’t find a space for in its program. Are we are simply making more films in this country than our talent-pool can justify?

Our film schools are churning out a flood of ambitious graduates, and can it be a coincidence that the best British debuts of the last couple of years – I’m thinking about Joanna Hogg’s Unrelated, Olly Blackburn’s Donkey Punch, Eran Creevy’s Shifty, Gideon Koppel’s sleep furiously (those two among the standouts of EIFF 2008), and Duncan Jones’ Moon – tend to be made by directors with more “unorthodox” backgrounds? We can probably put Justin Molotnikov into that category as well, as he’s compiled a considerable amount of real-world experience in the decade-plus since leaving film-school.

Of the unsatisfactory efforts, I did at least manage to get to the end of A Boy Called Dad, in which a 14 year-old lad from New Brighton (near Liverpool) gets a girl pregnant and, months later, and following a string of unlikely developments, goes on the run with the resulting baby. The introduction of a firearm occurs much earlier than in Kicks, and this startlingly implausible occurrence sets the scene for pretty much all that’s to follow. Though apparently Ken Loachian in its depiction and dramatisation of a very real problem that’s far from uncommon in modern Britain (where teenage pregnancy rates are notoriously among the world’s highest), the movie quickly spirals into melodramatic absurdity.

Easier with Practice Moving on to the European/International premieres, there was rather more grounds for optimism among the writer-director debuts from the other side of the Atlantic. And Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s Easier With Practice, which world premiered at CineVegas only a few days before EIFF, must count as pretty much brand-new – as of the time of writing (early August) there are still only nine votes present on IMDB (compare this with 5,308 for this year’s Powell winner, Moon). Showcasing a star-making turn from Brian Geraghty as a lonely 28 year-old short story writer who embarks on a torrid phone-sex relationship with a woman he never meets, it sounds somewhat unappetising on paper but works rather beautifully on the screen, partly thanks to Geraghty’s winning, moving characterisation.

Looking like a cross between Seann William Scott and David Morrissey, Geraghty (who currently shows a different side of his talent supporting the coruscating Jeremy Renner in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker) is a revelation as the bespectacled, cardigan-wearing scribe – but there’s an awful lot to like about writer-director Alvarez’s limpid DV visuals and the way his script manages to be both droll and poignant at the same time.

Moving further south, Sundance buzz-title Sin Nombre from Cary Joji Fukunaga ploughs what have become two quite familiar cinematic furrows: (1) the plight of central Americans desperate to find a new life over the border in the USA, and (2) children and teenagers becoming enmeshed in the violent world of gun-toting gangs. A page-turning narrative – one that is, if anything, a little too packed with incident – combines these two strands in compellingly watchable style as a gang-member flees north after slaying his mob’s brutal leader (the latter having semi-accidentally killed the former’s girlfriend during a botched rape attempt).

On the way his path crosses that of a girl who has a tragic back-story of her own, and an against-the-odds romance gradually flickers into life. Feature-debutant Fukunaga handles proceedings with brio and aplomb –it’s a low-budget, “indie” flavoured project, but he shows a real commercial sensibility that will surely attract the attention of Hollywood studios sooner rather than later. His script isn’t without plausibility-stretching contrivances and touches of excessive melodrama, but these aren’t too much of a distraction in what is such a full-blooded, Jacobean/Shakespearean brew of heightened passions, conflicted loyalties and brutal revenge – with a very fine performance from Edgar Flores (as a street-hardened tough with an ill-concealed sensitive side) at its bruised heart.

Also from Sundance – and, like Sin Nombre, via Berlin’s European Film Market – was the British-produced Powell winner Moon, a cleverly-structured bit of philosophical/conceptual/existential sci-fi from first-time director Duncan Jones that’s pretty much a one-man show for Sam Rockwell. Rockwell isn’t usually my cup of tea, and I was daunted by the prospect of a film where he’s seldom off screen – but for reasons that can’t be divulged here without giving away the plot, Rockwell gets to play both a fairly conventional leading-man role and a quirkier “character acting” part, and pretty much manages to hold the whole thing together.

That said, he has an intriguing script to work with – one that comes up with its own original ideas while nodding to various sci-fi cinema antecedents (most obviously Solaris, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running and Dark Star) and also the probingly existential literary equivalents by Stanislaw Lem and Philip K. Dick. Things get just a little muddled right at the very end, but I reckon that both of those authors would approve of this economic, smart, and in the end surprisingly moving affair: in space, it seems, no one can hear you weep.

FIsh TankOdds-on favourite for the Powell – including with myself (I published “theoretical” odds throughout the festival on Jigsaw Lounge, and even took a £20 losing bet from a prominent UK-based American critic from a Major Hollywood Trade Magazine) was Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, which won one of the minor gongs at Cannes. With Moon pipping it to the Powell post, it was probably inevitable that Fish Tank – for my money, a quantum leap beyond Arnold’s inexplicably-praised debut Red Road (2006) – would pick up the festival’s acting prize for its teenage star Katie Jarvis. And she is indeed compellingly believable as Mia, an attitude-heavy teenager who dreams of escaping her drab family life. For my money, however, the real eye-opener here was another, even younger screen newcomer – Rebecca Griffiths as Mia’s sister Tyler, a chirpy brat who’s just the right side of feral.

If only non-British performances were eligible for awards at Edinburgh – that would surely have brought some recognition for the terrific turn from veteran character-actor Stephen McHattie (perhaps best known as the Older Gangster from the start of A History of Violence) in Bruce McDonald’s Canadian horror-comedy Pontypool. It’s an admirably economic take on zombie-type tropes, nearly all of it unfolding within a small-town radio station. As the station’s star DJ (McHattie) is hosting his latest breakfast show, news starts filtering in of strange events in the locality – turns out to be an infection spread by a manner which is so strikingly inventive and unusual that it doesn’t really matter that it doesn’t quite hang together or make convincingly plausible sense.

To say more would be unfair, as part of the fun of the picture – and it is an awful lot of fun, right up to the amusingly weird coda at the end of the credits – depends on knowing a minimal amount beforehand. Overall it reminded me of early David Cronenberg – and not just because it’s from north of the 49th parallel, or because of McHattie’s History of Violence turn. Rather it recalled the way Cronenberg’s high concepts in movies like Shivers transcended budgetary limitations, even though the films often fell apart somewhat (or, as Danny Peary said about Videodrome, “lost their mind”) in the final act.

No such problems for my one “outstanding” find of the festival, Sylvie Verheyde’s Stella, which world-premiered at Gent in Belgium last September, heading to Thessaloniki before resurfacing at the European Film Market and also Crossing Europe at Linz in April (where I heard positive reports but didn’t manage to catch it.) Putting Fish Tank in its place somewhat, this is the affectionate but clear-eyed cine-memoir of growing up in the Paris of 1976-77.

A precocious but not very academic 11-12 year-old, little Stella Vlaminck (note those initials) is much more worldly-wise than her fellow pupils at her fairly posh school – how she ends up at such an establishment in the first place is never explained. Her street-savvy is due to the fact that she lives in and above the exceedingly rough-and-tumble bar run by her ever-feuding parents – a raucous but enticing establishment which is recreated with pitch-perfect attention to atmosphere, decor, music and detail. Indeed, the whole movie is just a degree or two away from being a virtual documentary of the era, while there’s just enough of a narrative thread to ensure that the picture isn’t just a wry stroll down memory lane.

Young Leora Barbara is rather marvellous in the central role – a textbook case of less-is-more underplaying – though for me the most breathtaking bit of acting came from Laëtitia Guerard as Genevieve, the friend she hangs out with whenever visiting her grandmother way up north in chti country. Just watch the reactions (surprise, delight, impatience, and about half a dozen more) that flit across Guerard’s features when she sees Stella for the first time in ages – and wonder how Verheyde, or anyone else, could possibly have elicited such utterly natural, convincing and expressive “acting”. Stella is chock-full of such wonderful touches – and of the 29 movies I saw at Edinburgh 2009 (including five from the Roger Corman retrospective, the pick of which were The Intruder and The Masque of the Red Death) I have absolutely no hesitation in naming it the best. Why it hasn’t made bigger ripples on the festival circuit – or, indeed, been picked up for UK distribution – is beyond my admittedly-limited comprehension.



Suggestions for 2010 and beyond (with apologies to Tyler Brûlé.)

1. Those light nights – make them more of a selling-point.

2. “Industry” passes (for producers, film festival programmers, etc). They cost £150 and nobody I knew who bought one reckoned they were getting their moneys’ worth, especially as it proved near-impossible to use them in order to obtain tickets for public screenings.

3. Catalogue – overhaul/redesign overdue? Perhaps some colour on the pages?

4. All films should be introduced – whether or not there is “talent” present. It costs nothing, can be used to point out upcoming highlights in the program (i.e. films and events whose ticket sales are lagging behind expectations), and when a picture “just starts” sans preamble, it does give the impression of being an unloved festival “orphan”.

5. The shift to June makes it very hard to get Cannes films – this year, Fish Tank and a late addition, Antichrist. Get around this by leaving half a dozen slots blank – to be filled with suitable Cannes titles. Make a selling-point advantage of this, emphasising that EIFF audiences are thus able to catch the very latest buzzed Cannes-pics, including those from outside the Competition (e.g., from this year’s Croisette, stuff like Police Adjective, Dogtooth, Air Doll, I Killed My Mother, Samson and Delilah and Yuki & Nina.)

6. Making EIFF the “European Sundance” shouldn’t mean the program is full of titles shown at Sundance. The Edinburgh audiences are, from my experience, well up for some edgier, more experimental programming.

7. Beef up the retrospective and archive-raiding sidebars. What about having a regular “five decades on” strand, presenting half a dozen features from the EIFF of 50 years before (there’s only a tiny handful of festivals anywhere in the world with the pedigree that facilitates such an idea)? So in 2010, there’d be a glance back at 1960, in 2011 at 1961.

8. Cut back on the total number of films. Better to screen the ones that are shown more often (no excuse for just that single screening of Le Donk – and, for all its flaws, Giallo surely warranted at least two performances.) This would facilitate my boldest suggestion…

9. Reopen the Palais de Dance as the Palais de Cinema. On Fountainbridge, the road that leads to the Cineworld along at the eyesore modern development that is Fountainpark, not far from the Cameo, passers-by will be familiar with a disused Mecca Bingo Hall. Now in a state of disrepair, this historic structure started life as a skating-rink and re-opened in 1911 as what was then Edinburgh’s largest cinema. It was a cinema and a ballroom until 1942, after which it was solely a dancing venue – noted for its revolving dancefloor, supposedly “sprung” with tennis balls. According to one regular, Raymond Faccenda, “I was amazed to see the mechanism that activated the revolving stage was none other than a big wheel that you hand operated like your mothers old mangle for wringing clothes. I thought it would be a sophisticated electronic device. When I saw this, you would have thought I’d just been told John Wayne was a poof!”

Among the bouncers at the Palais de Dance was a local lad, born only yards away, known as “Big Tam” – or Thomas Sean Connery, to give him his full name. Now one of EIFF’s three patrons, future 007 Connery also supplemented his income as a milkman, and his expertise with the horses on the route led to him looking after Roy Rogers’ legendary mount Trigger when he was stabled nearby during a visit to one of the Edinburgh theatres in 1951. Faccenda recalls: “Tam Connery let me walk the horse a few times and I still remember having this huge smelly animal drooling over my hand and feeling its warm breath on my face. (I’m talking about the horse, not Tam Connery.)”

The transformation of the disused bingo-hall into a temple of cinema – to be used year-round, but to come into its own during the festival(s) – would, of course, be a tough order, perhaps even a logistical nightmare. But it is just the kind of thing to appeal to Connery’s co-patron, Tilda Swinton (who pulled a similar trick with Nairn’s Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams in Nairn last year). With a fair wind it could re-open as a picture-palace in 2011, exactly a century after its first film-show extravaganzas… with a certain kilted Caledonian knight of the kino doing the honours – and minding the doors.

Edinburgh International Film Festival website: http://www.edfilmfest.org.uk

About The Author

Neil Young is a journalist, curator, filmmaker and actor from Sunderland, UK, based in Vienna, Austria. A professional critic since 2000, he has contributed to many international outlets including Sight & Sound, The Hollywood Reporter, Screen International, Little White Lies, Modern Times Review and MUBI Notebook. He works in consultation and/or programming capacities for several film festivals including the Viennale and Vienna Shorts (Austria). His feature-length directorial debut Rihaction premiered at the Diagonale festival in Graz, Austria in 2019 and he has since completed several other films of various lengths which have been screened internationally. His acting roles include in Joanna Hogg's The Souvenir (2019) and Paul Poet's Soldier Monika (2024.)

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