Edinburgh Film Festival returns to former glory

Joe Utichi
Yahoo UK Movies Features4 July 2012

Last year's Edinburgh International Film Festival was a shambles.

The longest continually-running film festival in the world should have taken a year off to recover from the resignation of former artistic director Hannah McGill. Instead, it abolished her position – sort of like trying to run a government without a Prime Minister – and left the festival in the ethereal hands of former artistic directors Mark Cousins and Lynda Myles, and Tilda Swinton.

The trio got together “with snow in [their] hair” to map out a festival blueprint over-earnestly titled “All That Heaven Allows” and charged its execution to James Mullighan, who couldn't have seemed less suited to the job if he'd tried. The result was as utterly disastrous as it was predictable; audiences fell by nearly a quarter.

This year, with a new artistic director in Chris Fujiwara, and a concerted effort to atone for past sins, Edinburgh was on firmer ground once more. Red carpets and awards were back, and big name guests turned up to remind audiences what they'd missed under the old regime.

[Related story: 'Brave' tops US box office]

The results showed; not just in a stronger and more engaging programme, but in a generally more positive atmosphere. It's an atmosphere this festival is remembered for – a love of film mixed with Scottish charm and the whiff of hops that always seems to pervade the city – but one many felt had been destroyed for good by last year's recklessness. It's credit to Fujiwara and his team – many of whom had bravely weathered last year from the inside – that it all came back so quickly.

The festival opened with “Killer Joe”, from director William Friedkin. Its big red carpet premiere welcomed star Gina Gershon and the director himself, along with special guests like Elliott Gould and Jim Broadbent – both at the festival to chair juries for the reinstated awards. In fact, the Michael Powell award for Best British Film, one of the festival's top honours, was welcomed back by Powell's widow, acclaimed editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who sat on a fascinating panel about the restoration of film in the digital age. The award went to Penny Woolcock, whose film 'One Mile Away' premiered at the festival.

In the international competition, China's Mao Mao won the top prize for his film 'Here, Then', which explores themes of alienation and disillusionment in modern China. Hopefully none of the jurors had it confused with 'Here, There', another Chinese film, from director Lu Sheng, which also premiered at the festival. Andrea Riseborough and Brid Brennan jointly took the Best Performance gong for their turns in James Marsh's 'Shadow Dancer'.

Closing night marked a welcome return for Pixar, who'd previously brought 'Toy Story 3', 'Wall-E' and 'Ratatouille' to the festival, and who arrived with a Scottish-set feature, 'Brave', that welcomed Kelly Macdonald and Robbie Coltrane to the red carpet.

Watch the trailer for Brave

Fujiwara's great skill with this year's festival was in balancing the accessible with the arthouse. There were films from 52 countries, and a welcome return for Edinburgh's retrospectives, with strands dedicated to Japanese director Shinji Somai and American comedy helmer Gregory La Cava. Fans of genre cinema seemed to find much to celebrate, with 'Grabbers', from director Jon Wright and writer Kevin Lehane, emerging as a firm favourite.

In Person events were back, too. I had the pleasure of hosting a conversation with Elliott Gould, in which he discussed his long career and collaborations with the likes of Altman, Godard and the Muppets with a blissfully tangential relish. And Scotsman critic Siobhan Synott chaired an equally fascinating discussion with Jim Broadbent, with both events playing to a packed audience at the Traverse theatre.

All that's left is the wait for the audience figures, to see if ticket sales have recovered. But it's worth bearing in mind that there may be a slight lag here, with audiences burnt by last year's event perhaps assuming they'd be similarly afflicted this time and staying away. Instead, it's with great relief that we can report the triumphant return of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. With confidence restored, here's hoping this joyous event in the film calendar will only get stronger as Fujiwara embarks on his second year.

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