EIFF-Festival Roundup

When writer, film critic, and book editor Chris Fujiwara took over the role of Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival in September 2011, he had a heavy weight of responsibility on his shoulders. As I discussed at the time, the 2011 edition of the festival had seen a number of changes made to the format and, while I still found much to enjoy that year, it’s undeniable that not all the changes were for the best. In general, EIFF was seen as waning under the weight of budget cuts and behind-the-scenes troubles – but all this seemed to change with Fujiwara’s arrival. 2012, many people declared, was a return to form for the flagging festival. Edinburgh was back. With all this in mind, then, it would seem the weight was yet to be lifted from Fujiwara’s shoulders: would the festival be able to continue to build on last year’s success?

From the time I spent at the festival, and from the people I spoke to, it would seem the answer was a resounding ‘yes’ – and I’ll try to explain why during this two-part roundup. With 146 features from 53 countries on offer, there were plenty of gems waiting to be discovered by the eager filmgoer – but there was also plenty on offer for those working within the film industry.

Of the industry events I attended, highlights included Borrowed Time – The Future of Independent Distribution, in which producer Olivier Kaempfer discussed the innovative strategy behind the upcoming release of Borrowed Time (seen at last year’s EIFF), and Victor Kossakovsky and the Act of Filmmaking, in which the Russian documentarist discussed his art (Victor Kossakovsky is the man behind ¡Vivan las Antipodas!, one of the best films of last year, also shown at EIFF2012). Kossakovsky spoke about the importance of seeing (not looking, but ‘seeing’), and how the picture has to say more than the subjects in his documentaries. For Kossakovsky, film is an act of love between the filmmaker and the viewer, in which the director has to seduce the audience – something which he rather graphically explained during the talk. I think it would be fair to say he came across as a little pretentious (never a bad thing) and domineering (he told the person filming the interview to raise the camera), but these qualities seem to be somewhat consistent in people making great works of cinematic art (more on which later). Kossakovsky stated that with so many films being made every year, there’s no point in making a good film – you have to make an extraordinary one. And with ¡Vivan las Antipodas!, Kossakovsky certainly did.

In addition to the industry talks and panels I attended – which also included an excellent discussion from representatives of several public funding bodies entitled Meet the Funders – the daily Early Doors … Networking Drinks continues to be one of the festival’s strong points. Offering plenty of free alcohol (for those who like that kind of thing), the daily gathering is the perfect place to catch up with old friends, make new contacts, and discuss the films screened that day.

And so what of the films?

From the 33 features I saw, the general standard seemed very high. Unfortunately I missed several of the festival’s biggest titles (such as Monsters University, The Bling Ring, Frances Ha, Upstream Color and Jurassic Park 3D), but all of these will be getting a release in the not-too-distant future, so concentrating on the ‘smaller’ films seemed like the better option. Of these, the one I’m most upset about missing was Oh Boy, which I singled out in my intro piece as something I was particularly keen to see – but such is life during a festival.

Of the other films highlighted in that piece, A Story of Children and Film proved to be an enchanting series of personal observations on cinema, perhaps more filmic essay than film per se (a commentary on the history of film within the medium of film itself), while Leviathan hijacked the first-person point-of-view aesthetic familiar from computer games to create images of abstract beauty (the opening section’s switch from human to fish POV reminded me, perhaps rather randomly, of the different gaming options in Aliens versus Predator 2). It’s an undeniably impressive, visceral and immersive work.

Screening alongside Leviathan in the Michael Powell Award competition, For Those in Peril and Mister John helped prove the healthy state of British cinema, as did two other Michael Powell nominees: the charming, tender, funny comedy Svengali, and the enjoyably off-kilter and very well directed “gangster screwball black comedy” Everyone’s Going to Die (there’s a great monologue towards the end which plays out in a single, unbroken close up). For Those in Peril, meanwhile, offered a baroquely poetic take on an interesting story: the lone survivor of an accident at sea struggles to reintegrate into a community that rejects him and blames him for surviving when the others perished. There’s an admirably strong directorial vision behind the film, but it felt a little too pervaded by misery for my personal taste (and, in that sense, it feels very British).

Also the result of strong directorial vision was Mister John, my favourite of the Powell-nominees I saw (the prize ultimately went to Leviathan). When the titular John dies, his brother Gerry heads to Singapore to visit the bereaved wife and daughter, before slowly finding himself drawn further and further into the life of his deceased brother – to the extent that their identities begin to merge. The film’s dialogue is sparse, clipped and minimal, its narrative submerged beneath its mood and tone – meaning that the film won’t be for everyone. At times, I couldn’t decide if the film was playing with clichés, or conforming to them – but it nonetheless emerges as a unique, nuanced character study of a kind rarely found in British cinema and, as a result, serves as strong proof of the vibrant work currently being made within the UK.

The final new film mentioned in my intro, Historic Centre, was also my most anticipated of the festival. Far from being the “interesting failure” I was worried it might be, the film succeeds surprisingly well as a whole, cohering in a way very few portmanteau films manage: the slight, comedic nature of the first and final shorts (by Aki Kaurismäki and Manoel de Oliveira, respectively) perfectly balancing the two dense middle sections (by Pedro Costa and Víctor Erice). Erice’s section is comprised of moving and surprisingly philosophical interviews with former workers of a now-defunct textile factory (the short is labeled, perhaps tellingly, perhaps tantalisingly, as ‘notes for a film’). A particularly poignant moment occurs when an elderly woman states that, at the age of 77, she still doesn’t know what happiness is – joy, yes, but not happiness. A photograph hangs on the wall behind the interviewees, and at one point Erice shoots and edits footage of the photograph like Kubrick does at the end of The Shining. Whether or not the reference is intentional (I suspect not), it seems to add a further sense of pathos and history to the segment – perhaps supporting Kossakovsky’s point that the image has to say more than the subjects in a documentary. Meanwhile, Sweet Exorcist, the best of the four sections, reunites Costa with the star of his earlier Colossal Youth, Ventura. This time, Ventura is pitted against the ghosts of his past in a surreal short delving into the legacy and history of the 1974 Portuguese revolution. Costa’s images are as starkly beautiful as ever. The opening and closing moments (which feature people walking through rocky foliage) recall Val Lewton’s I Walked with a Zombie, which Costa (sort of) remade in 1995, though apparently Sweet Exorcist belongs to a longer film Costa is currently working on, which is influenced by another Lewton production, Bedlam. Costa is in dialogue, it seems, not only with the history of Portugal, but also with the history of cinema. And, in the Q&A that followed the screening (hosted by Fujiwara), Costa seemed equally concerned with the future of cinema. Too many people, he thinks, are ‘sleeping’ through films – and we have to wake them up. There’s no denying that the dogmatic pretension I located in Kossakovsky is also present in Costa, but there’s also no denying that he’s a true artist of cinema, and his talk with Fujiwara proved to be one of my highlights of the festival, as did Historic Centre itself.

But there was one film that I liked even more than Historic Centre, and I’ll discuss it in part two of this post…

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