Scotland on Screen: EIFF Creative Director Kristy Matheson
After 13 years of taking place in June, Edinburgh International Film Festival is moving back to join the August festivities. Ahead of EIFF's programme launch, we chat to Kristy Matheson, the Creative Director overseeing the festival's new era
Is there a tougher job in UK cinema exhibition than being head of the Edinburgh International Film Festival? From the outside, it appears not. This venerable institution – until COVID struck, the longest continuously running film festival in the world – has burned through four festival heads in the last decade. Two were emergency caretakers (James Mulligan, Nick Vardy), another didn’t hang around long enough to make much impact (Chris Fujiwara), and one brought few innovations during their stint in charge (Mark Adams).
No one could accuse EIFF’s new Creative Director, Kristy Matheson, of lacking innovation. In less than a year in charge, she’s overseen several major shake-ups, the chief one being the festival’s permanent move back to August since its controversial rescheduling to June in 2009. “The whole point of moving back to August is really about ensuring that film is central to that broader cultural conversation that happens in Edinburgh every summer,” she tells us. “Obviously the August festivals are important to local audiences, but it's also a global gathering of people and talent, and I think it's really important that film, as an art form, is in that mix.”
During our chat, which takes place a whole month before EIFF will officially launch its programme, Matheson often brings the conversation back to her future audience. Keeping the paying punters in mind was a philosophy drilled into her during her first gig in programming back at her hometown film festival in Brisbane, Australia two decades ago. “The biggest thing I learned during that experience was the idea that, as programmer, it's not about you; you’re kind of irrelevant,” she says. “What's important is the films and the audience, and your job is just really putting those two things together. What you think, what you like, it's actually not the point of the job. You're not a film critic, you're not an auteur, you're just this conduit between these two main players, and that's the audience and the film.”
Matherson has also ripped up the rulebook on EIFF’s programme structure, which for a long time had categorised the majority of its films in unevocative strands based on geography, such as ‘Best of British’, ‘American Dreams’ and, perhaps the most unhelpful, ‘World Perspectives’. “We understand that we're about to say to people when we release this programme, ‘here are a lot of films and you're going to have like no roadmap for these things," says Matheson. "So we've divided the program up broadly into what we're sort of thinking of as not parts of the world, or themes as such, but really different audience types or different types of viewing.”
The five new strands this year are The Conversation (described as "cinema to get you talking"), The Chamber ("arthouse cinema for the culturally curious"), Heartbreakers ("films about friendship, family, lovers, and cheaters"), Night Moves ("cult, music, late-night thrills"), and Postcards From the Edge ("bold visions to expand horizons").
The annual Michael Powell Award is also changing. The original brief of the award was to honour imagination and creativity in British cinema. But with the festival returning to its original August slot, Matheson started thinking about the award in its new context. “When all these festivals were started in 1947, it was out of a spirit of internationalism, and this idea of collaboration,” she says. “It was using culture to mend bridges, bring people together rather than always constantly seeing the differences.” She also started thinking about the internationalism of the filmmaker the award is named after, and his long and fruitful partnership with Hungarian screenwriter and producer Emeric Pressburger. With this in mind, the prize is now dubbed the Powell & Pressburger Award, and will see five British films competing for it alongside five international titles.
“We've got ten films that we're super, super happy with,” says Matheson of the competition lineup. “There are some first-time filmmakers in there, there are some very experienced filmmakers in there, there are people from all over the world in there. I don't understand anyone who says 'this has been a bad year for films' because it's like, you just haven't dug hard enough.”
While we agree with Matheson that there is no shortage of great films in any given year, the challenge for EIFF has always been convincing filmmakers and distributors to show these films in Edinburgh rather than at another festival. The particular difficulty of EIFF’s positioning in the crowded festival calendar is something Mathison is well aware of. “Being in August puts us right in front of the busiest part of the film calendar in many respects,” she says. Falling close on EIFF’s heels are major festivals like Venice, Toronto, Telluride and New York, which all mark the start of awards season. “All of what we think of as the really big films of the year, they really sit in that last quarter,” says Matheson.
Anyone hoping that EIFF's move back to August will mean more famous faces attending the festival might be disappointed. “That's not the corridor that we sit in," says Matheson, "and it's not the programme we've set out to build. So spoiler alert: if you want seven days of red carpets, that's not gonna happen.”
Matheson is almost ready to share what the programme will look like, but rather than feeling stressed, she’s in the middle of her favourite part of the process. “Watching the films is fun, but what I like the most is having discussions with my colleagues about the programme. It's like I've gone on holiday to a cabin with four other people. And we've just been doing a giant jigsaw puzzle. There have been moments where I've been like, 'I can't find that piece, it's really frustrating.' But it's been fun.
"And now the jigsaw puzzle is almost finished, so it's great to be at this point and be able to go, 'OK, wow, I can see that picture now.”
You can get the full picture of the puzzle yourself when EIFF launches its programme on 20 July.