Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

The decline of the Edinburgh Film Festival

It would be overdoing it to refer to a conspiracy of silence. But the British film media seem oddly reluctant to point out that one of the world’s oldest film festivals — the oldest by some reckoning — is in …

Thu, Jun 2, 2011, 18:11


It would be overdoing it to refer to a conspiracy of silence. But the British film media seem oddly reluctant to point out that one of the world’s oldest film festivals — the oldest by some reckoning — is in a state of serious decline. The Edinburgh International Film Festival was, until recently, scheduled to run at the same time as the (though they wouldn’t use this word) main arts Festival and, for that reason among many, was, to my mind, among the most enjoyable film events on the planet. Every year, the Scottish bash managed to combine a near perfect blend of oddball discoveries and mainstream delights. I’ve met such varied folk as George Romero, Al Gore and Sam Mendes at the event. If you could stand the constant attacks from mimes waving leaflets, the jamboree was always a hoot and an education.

EIFF director James Mullighan does not look in any way desperate.

Early signs of rot arrived in 2008  when — for reasons that are too banal to go into — the Film Festival was moved away from the arts extravaganza’s slot in August to a vacant space in mid-June. The atmosphere was a tad less hectic. There were fewer punters prowling the streets in search of entertainment (though, it should be acknowledged, there was also less competition for their attention). The festival found itself placed a little too close to a certain event in the south of France.

My suspicions were aroused when, during the 2008 event, I attended a supposed gala unspooling of Errol Morris‘s Standard Operating Procedure. The screening at Cineworld in Fountainbridge — which the great man attended — was awash with far too many empty seats. You had to feel a little embarrassed for everyone concerned.

Over the succeeding years, the standard of films and the calibre of attendees steadily declined. Evidence that all was not well in the upper echelons arrived earlier this year when actor Tilda Swinton and critic Mark Cousins — two stalwarts of the festival — made their excuses in the politest possible manner. To that point, we were working on the assumption that Edinburgh had taken a dangerous — but interesting — swerve towards the unpredictable. The notion was that celebrity curators would, in the manner of London’s Meltdown Event, programme a series of eccentric screenings and discussions. Such luminaries as  Isabella Rossellini, Gus Van Sant and Jim Jarmusch were all expected to put their oar in. This notion now seems to have been tided away.

When, a month ago, this year’s programme was announced, there were groans of weary disbelief. It’s nice to hear that the sparky Irish comedy The Guard is opening the festival. Paul Fraser’s My Brothers is also worth watching out for, but that film premiered way back in July 2010 at the Galway Film Fleadh. I suppose the new film by David Hare is something of an event (yeah, I can hear you hooting with excitement). This is, however, an extraordinarily underwhelming line-up.

It seems that the collapse has now become too conspicuous to ignore. Last Sunday, the admirable Jason Solomons, gregarious film watcher for The Observer, stuck his neck out and declared: “The world’s longest-running film festival is in peril and there appears little can be done as the start date of 15 June approaches.” Jason points out that one of the festival’s supposed big films, Lucy Walker’s Countdown to Zero, actually made its UK debut at Edinburgh last year (its world premiere was a full 13 months ago at Cannes). He also notes that the festival has ditched the Michael Powell award for best British film.

Once one of the world’s great cultural events, The Edinburgh International Film Festival now looks like a mid-ranking (at best) provincial knees-up. No doubt, punters, press and film-makers will still enjoy the bohemian atmosphere of the adorable Filmhouse cinema. Pints will still be consumed in the lovely bars of the UK’s most attractive city. But something important has been lost. In an era of funding cuts, it will be a challenge to turn things around for next year.

It is customary to end such pieces with a jaunty line in the vein of “I’ll tell you how it all works out in a few weeks.” But, I’m afraid it doesn’t look as if there is any reason for The Irish Times to attend this year. Boo!

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