Of the twelve days that comprised this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, I was in town for six, during which time I was able to sample a good cross- section of the festival’s programme, meet a lot of great people and attend a few quality parties. For those of us returning to the festival from 2009, 2010 seemed, perhaps, a little quiet. There were murmurs of budget cuts and the atmosphere as a whole seemed a little subdued. Yet none of this detracted from what really matters at festivals: the quality of the films on show. While some of the people I spoke to were lukewarm about the films they’d seen, by the end of my trip I’d certainly seen a collection of films just as memorable and just as strong as the ones I saw in 2009.
One unexpected highlight of the festival, for me, was the charming French comedy Thelma, Louise and Chantal, in which three middle- aged women (actually Nelly, Gabrielle and Chantal) embark on a road trip to the wedding of Gabrielle’s ex-lover. All three women, it becomes clear, have their own agenda fueling their desire to go to the wedding, and writer/director Benoît Pétré makes their journey an exploration into middle-aged female sexuality. The film’s opening scene quickly sets the tone for what’s to follow: a perfect blend of light comedy and stirring emotional drama. Although at times the film veers towards the downbeat – the women’s lives, they are forced to admit, are a mess – there is a silly side to it which prevents proceedings from ever getting too dark: it’s an engaging and enjoyable ride. Although the montage ending is a touch overdone, it doesn’t dispel what’s gone before. Given the right distribution and marketing (or, God forbid, an American remake), it’s the type of film which could really find an audience.
Less likely to find mainstream success is Urszula Antoniak’s Nothing Personal, which may be a multiple award-winning hit on the festival circuit, but its minimalism will ensure it contains a niche appeal at best. An often wordless portrayal of Anne’s abandonment of modern life, we watch as she camps in the Irish countryside, scowls at people who offer her a kind word, and eventually finds her way into the isolated house of lonely lobster fisherman and farmer Martin. Despite strong performances from Lotte Verbeek and Stephen Rea, and some effective poetic flourishes from Antoniak, the film never quite convinces, the minimalism too often feeling forced and contrived. This, coupled with the fact that we are offered little in the way of surprises as the film unfolds (at least until its unexpected final turn), means that the film fails to engage our interest as much as it should. Still, it’s a film which has been made with conviction and which, despite its flaws, still contains much of merit.
Another flawed but interesting film was Filipino director Brillante Mendoza’s Lola. Shot lo-fi handheld, the film’s style effectively captures the hustle and bustle of Manila, but also makes for unpleasant viewing. The loud, noisy soundtrack doesn’t much help the aesthetic experience, and the film’s first tripod shot comes as a huge relief. The story concerns Grandma Sepa’s attempts to raise the money to pay for her murdered son’s funeral, and Grandma Carpin’s financial attempts to persuade Grandma Sepa to drop the charges against her own son, the murderer. Exploring the crime from the point of view of the two old ladies makes for an interesting idea, but the film perhaps works best from an ethnographic point of view, as a study of Filipino politics and morality. Where the film is less successful is in its characterisation. We are never given a huge insight into the inner lives of the characters and, despite the emotional complexity of their dilemmas, the characters remain relatively uncomplicated and one-dimensional. This, along with the rough and ready style, means that it’s harder to empathise with them than it should be given the situation. The film is also far longer than it needs to be.
Elsewhere in the festival were two solid, if slightly underwhelming, films from Iran: The Hunter and Frontier Blues. The former is the new film from writer/director Rafi Pitts, whose film It’s Winter made quite a splash with UK critics back in 2006. Playing the lead, Pitts stars as an ex-con security guard in a car-manufacturing warehouse whose daily routine is shattered when he returns home to find his wife and child missing. There’s no denying that it’s beautifully made, with an especially effective use of sound design, and things rattle along engagingly for the film’s duration. Yet despite an undercurrent which serves as an exploration of the present political and social situation in Iran, the film’s ending amounts to little more than a ‘so what’ feeling. Pitts has likened his self-described ‘neo-realist western’ to a dinner party in Iran, where the hosts offer their guests multiple dishes without telling them what to eat, allowing them to decide for themselves. It’s a nice metaphor, but one can’t help but feel that this is one dinner you walk away from still hungry.
To an extent, Babak Jalali’s Frontier Blues is similarly unsatisfactory, though also with much to appreciate. Misbilled in the festival brochure as ‘a comedy’, the film is instead a slow and quiet exploration of the lives of Hassan, his uncle Kazem, Alam and The Minstrel. Yes, there is humour present, but to sell it as a comedy is to build up expectation of something it’s not. It is a film of stasis, of a yearning to escape. Hassan is mad, his donkey his closest companion. His uncle looks after him, but is also frustrated by him, his mood not helped by the terrible business his clothes shop is doing. Hassan spends time searching for a girlfriend on the phone. The Minstrel, meanwhile, had his wife (literally) stolen from him by a farmer with a green car, and is being exploited by a photographer from Tehran who is desperate to ‘capture’ The Minstrel’s Turkmenistani roots on film – even if capturing means constructing. In the chicken factory where Alam works, the chickens are dying off and his clothes keep ripping. They are too small. Life for all of these characters is hard, leading nowhere. Similarly, as the film progresses, one becomes aware that there is no strong narrative unfolding, no real sense that it is building to anything. In this respect, Alam’s story is the strongest. He is learning English and wants to escape, to marry and take his wife someplace new. The film is shot head-on, flat, in long takes. It looks good. It sounds good too, and there are musical interludes where characters stare out of the screen. It’s a hard film to write about because there’s an intangible texture to it, something which has to be seen to be understood. As meandering and as dead beat as it is, it’s also special, a film you won’t forget in a hurry.
During my time in Edinburgh I was unfortunately only able to sample one film each from two of the festival’s most interesting strands: the experimental Black Box, and the retrospective After the Wave, dedicated to ‘Lost and Forgotten British Cinema 1967-1979’.
Mark, which played in the former, is a personal portrait of a deceased friend by acclaimed Canadian artist Mike Hoolboom. Less tightly woven and less successful than Steven Soderbergh’s similarly purposed And Everything Is Going Fine, the film pulls in home-movie footage, clips from Hollywood (and, less often, arthouse) films and retrospective interviews from friends, lovers and co-workers. By far and away the most moving of these interviews comes around halfway through the film when one of Mark’s co-workers describes in detail the last time she saw him alive. The camera frames her with her face half obscured by a lantern, and we feel her emotion as she chokes on her words. Unfortunately, as the film’s emotional high-point, this scene comes too early. Although the rest of the film sustains interest, it never returns to the level of this premature peak.
Barney Platts-Mills’ 1971 Private Road, meanwhile, proved to be one of the more exciting discoveries of the festival. Something of a hit at the time of its release, the film has since become forgotten, a fact which I hope the forthcoming BFI DVD release (due in January 2011, preceded by a BFI re-release of Platts-Mills’ debut Bronco Bullfrog) will help change. Susan Penhaligon plays Ann, a secretary at a talent agency. When young writer Peter (Bruce Robinson, 16 years before Withnail & I) is signed as a client, the two embark on a love affair, portrayed quickly and elliptically. Although Platts-Mills tells the film from a balanced point of view, we learn more about her than we do him, and the inclusion of her parents and their viewpoints can’t help but skew our sympathy in her direction: there’s a sense throughout that he’s not good enough for her. Yet despite his flaws and his arrogance, his feelings are genuine, and she’s as problematic for the relationship as he is, with a desperate need to be both independent and looked after at the same time. It’s a witty and well observed piece which offers genuinely well rounded and complicated characters. In an era of three-dimensional space but too many two-dimensional protagonists, it made for a refreshing change.
Of the films I didn’t get to see there was a near constant buzz about Postales, Monsters, Skeletons and the Foreign-language Oscar winner The Secret in Their Eyes. Monsters and Skeletons both went on to win awards at the festival, namely the Moët New Directors Award and The Michael Powell Award for Best New British Feature Film, respectively.
Away from the films there was plenty of other fun to be had. The Variety Interview with Graham King offered an entertaining hour and a half in front of one of our major producers, while The Cultural Impact of British Films proved to be a thought-provoking discussion on the eponymous topic. The daily Hair of the Dog drinks remain a good place for filmmakers to network in an informal and friendly environment, as do the various parties. The annual film quiz (in which my team came third!) is also a good way to bond with friends, old and new.
So, in all, it’s been another great year for EIFF. Sure, there were highs and lows and, yes, it felt a little subdued compared to 2009, but the quality was there where it needed to be. It also remains a well run festival with a strong industry presence, making it an essential annual outing for filmmakers and film fans alike. This year the festival’s marketing tagline was ‘What Will You Discover?’, and I can’t wait to return in 2011 and uncover even more of the best in contemporary world cinema.