Edinburgh International Film Festival

Festival director Hannah McGill tells The Skinny why moving this year's festival to June is a good idea, and takes us through some of her personal picks

Feature by Laura Smith | 23 May 2008

Change is scary. It’s so much easier to hang on to the ‘if it ain’t broke’ idioms, to play it safe. Obviously nobody told the astoundingly fearless Hannah McGill this, as she kicks off the second year of her tenure as Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival by suggesting that Keira Knightley may in fact be a half-decent actress after all and not just a snooker cue with teeth. Oh yeah, and she’s moved the festival to June too. It’s a turvy-topsy world.

“We could have continued the festival exactly as it was,” admits McGill, “but in order to grow or change it at all it needed a bit more breathing space – more space for people to see all of it and for the press to cover all of it.” Opening EIFF 2008 with Dylan Thomas biopic The Edge Of Love represents a real coup for the new and improved cinephile bonanza, blending crowd-pleasing period glossiness with arthouse cache: expect an epic pout-off as Knightley and Sienna Miller strut the red carpet in June. But McGill is keen to downplay the showbiz element: “I think it’s more relevant than ever for a festival to represent a level of filmmaking that isn’t necessarily going to get commercial distribution. It says a lot to concentrate a bit more on the discovery element and to draw the audience's attention more towards film that there hasn’t been pre-publicity on.”

Edinburgh has always been the renegade on the festival scene, the unabashedly audience-orientated maverick, not afraid to look slightly scruffy in comparison with the de trop glitz of Cannes or the commercial savvy of London. And it’s all the better for it – film festivals need to forge a unique identity if they’re going to maintain their status on a festival circuit that has gone from three in the world (Cannes, Venice and Edinburgh) to about three a day. A significant cash injection from the UK Film Council this year means that Edinburgh has the resources to become a festival worth talking about. And as the ‘only show in town’ the June slot should ensure that Edinburgh has room to change and grow, and that audiences have a better chance to immerse themselves in what promises to be a very exciting festival.



EIFF isn’t afraid to do big and shiny when it feels like it, and the warm-hearted quicksilver glossiness of Pixar’s WALL-E looks set to be the family-friendly hit of the festival. For those who like their animation with a little more bite there’s the decidedly grown-up Fear(s) of The Dark, a bumper package of black-and-white spookiness by six animators from across the globe. It’s a mixed bag, but there’s a lot to enjoy here: Richard McGuire’s brilliantly fluid, spare design with inky black backgrounds and high contrast cut-outs is perhaps the most stylistically impressive segment, while the frenzied strokes of Blutch’s tale of an eighteenth-century marquis and his bloodthirsty hell hounds is certainly the scariest.


British Gala

Tipped by McGill as the “most eagerly-awaited British debut of the year", Duane Hopkins’ Better Things follows on from the bleakly beautiful atmospherics of his two multiple award-winning shorts with a deftly interwoven ensemble piece following the fractured lives of a Cotswolds community. Teenage heroin addicts deal with boredom and grief against a backdrop of beautifully shot landscapes – think the Dardenne brothers meets Lynne Ramsay – making for poetic realism at its most achingly resonant. Meanwhile, EIFF regular Shane Meadows returns with Somers Town, the follow up to his eighties reminiscence This is England, with the impish, baby-faced Thomas Turgoose returning as another brassy, tracksuited teen. Shot in grainy 16mm monochrome, it’s an irresistibly scruffy, shaggy little gem.



From its inception as a documentary festival, EIFF has always had a strong focus on non-fiction filmmaking. This year veteran documentarian Errol Morris will be in town for an In Person Q&A and the Gala screening of his film about the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, Standard Operating Procedure, while Hannah singles out the inimitable Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World – “amazing, just beautiful” – as one not to miss. Herzog’s wry, deadpan voiceover and eye for the strange and the marvellous is brilliantly employed against the vast frozen landscape of Antarctica, complete with eccentric scientists, wanderers, explorers and the odd suicidal penguin. British film Man on Wire is another highlight of McGill’s – “I love films about people’s eccentricities, and this man just had this violent desire to walk a high wire between the Twin Towers – and he did it!”



Nineties nostalgia piece (yup, it had to happen) The Wackness marks the sophomore effort of Jonathan Levine, who debuted with lyrical slasher All the Boys Love Mandy Lane. A heady mix of stoner existentialism, coming-of-age awkwardness and a whole lot of wackiness courtesy of Sir Ben Kingsley (who has 3 films at EIFF this year, and really needs to go lie down) merrily dispensing scabrous quips, smoking lots of weed and making out with an Olson twin. For those of you who like your nostalgia with three martinis and a chaser of cyanide there’s the gorgeously dark and stylish 1940s-set Married Life – a glossy, noirish potboiler, with louche rake Pierce Brosnan observing the duplicitous intrigues of Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson and Rachel McAdams. But for sheer, high-spirited enjoyment you won’t get much better than the breezy charms of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, a fizzing champagne cocktail of a screwball throw-back, with Amy Adams doing her endearingly ditzy thing as upwardly-mobile ingénue Delysia Lafosse, while the always-excellent Frances McDormand is the strait-laced Jeeves to her Wooster in the title role.


Night Moves

The festival’s nocturnal strand likes to stave off any symptoms of sleep-deprivation with plenty of high-octane oddballs and nail-biters. This year sees slick, suspenseful Danish thriller Just Another Love Story gleefully subverting romantic conventions with a fast, frenzied and visually arresting noir tale packed with twists, corpses and the odd homage to While You Were Sleeping. Creepy lo-fi Spanish head-scratcher Time Crimes takes another generic convention – the time-travel sci-fi – and twists it into a tightly-coiled, menacing puzzle that’s already attracted the attention of United Artists. Rumour has it that David Cronenberg is interested in helming the remake…



A platform for international new talent, EIFF’s Rosebud section is a great place for making real discoveries and being a little more adventurous with your festival choices. The King of Ping Pong has an unlikely hero in overweight table tennis enthusiast Rille, but gentle humour and lots of gorgeously shot wintry Swedish landscapes make for an enjoyably understated character comedy. A real exclusive for EIFF this year is Warsaw Dark, directorial debut of the peerless cinematographer Christopher Doyle, a long-time friend of the festival. New talent is also well served, with the ridiculously talented Glasgow-born Marianna Palka directing, writing, producing and starring in risqué romance Good Dick.



EIFF presents a double bill of classic cinema this year, with the films of iconic French actress Jeanne Moreau and underground maverick Shirley Clarke getting the retrospective treatment. Highlights in the Moreau programme include the timeless Jules et Jim and the Orson Welles-directed The Trial and The Immortal Story. Lumiere and L’Adolescente, two of the actress’s directorial efforts will also be screened, as McGill stresses: “Moreau was such an important filmmaker, she wasn’t just a puppet, she was a very intellectual force.” The searing, jazz-inflected cinema verité work of experimental filmmaker Shirley Clarke will also be under the spotlight this year. “I think for our younger audiences in particular it’s really good for people to know that someone like Shirley Clarke existed,” says McGill, “someone who was going out with her camera, making films – completely undaunted by any ideas about who she should be.”


Under the Radar

The festival’s newest section is something to get excited about, featuring the kind of B-movies that nobody’s supposed to be making anymore – films that skirt the margins of the mainstream, in McGill’s words “hybrid, odd films that just didn’t fit anywhere else… in the spirit of John Waters and Roger Corman.” From the energetically clunky horror-comedy Blood Car, to the philosophical bizarreness of The Third Pint, this is what indie film is all about. “I think the important thing to recognise, and it was a bit of a revelation for me,” says McGill “is that our core audiences are not interested in the commercial stuff. They are – and I say this with great love and respect – a load of geeks! As I am myself! They like detail, and they like individual weird little projects that have come out of nowhere, and they like mavericks, Under the Radar is hopefully reflecting the importance of those kind of filmmakers.”