Edinburgh International Film Festival 2012
Outside Edinburgh’s Filmhouse cinema, a middle-aged Chinese man lights his cigarette, zips his parka tight against the bracing Scottish summer and inhales. If we played a guessing game we might think he’s waiting for his wife before an afternoon matinee. In fact he is Wang Bing, one of the world’s foremost documentary makers, and he is fitting in a sly smoke before his spotlight feature at Edinburgh International Film Festival 2012 (EIFF). This is perhaps not a man bathed in fame but one of superior reputation. ‘I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial,’ claimed Cassio in Shakespeare’s Othello. I wouldn’t term EIFF 2011 bestial, but its own reputation was washed down the gutter, at least as far as the press – those sculptors of the public consciousness – were concerned. Their perception became reality. Now that the dust has settled since the 1 July Closing Gala, has a phoenix risen from those flames of derision or been engulfed by them? I am happy to say that, in 2012, this bird has flown high with only the slightest singing of tail feathers. Much of this is down to people like that unassuming man puffing away out front of the Filmhouse, EIFF’s natural home.
But also one other: the new man at the helm for 2012 was Chris Fujiwara, a film writer of international repute who has published books on Otto Preminger and Jerry Lewis. It is he who has regenerated trust in the cinephiles after a previous year’s festival which placed event organization on par with cine-literacy. I spoke with Fujiwara on the day his brave programme was unveiled to the press, and his ethos seemed modestly simplistic: ‘You might say that the films picked themselves in the sense that films which are outstanding for their artistic qualities, for their integrity, for their success as entertainment, for whatever values they have do announce themselves and impose themselves and say please screen me. By selecting them for the programme we’re just obeying the call so to speak.’
Hindsight has proved him correct in this instance. This was a programme that in no way bowed down to Cannes, Berlin or Venice. In today’s world festivals are many; an event such as Edinburgh can never compete with the glamour of the French south coast or budgets from the German capital. Unless you are content to be viewed as a diet version of these full-fat monsters then an individual niche must be carved. Edinburgh’s has always been discovery.
‘We are continuing in an old tradition of EIFF which for many years was known as a place where new filmmakers were discovered, where new trends in filmmaking are discovered […] I’m recalling a time when there weren’t so many film festivals as there are now and Edinburgh made its mark on the world of film festivals in a very big way from the late 1960s on. I’m just trying to continue in this tradition where Edinburgh is one of the centres of film exploration.’
Discovery need not look only to the future; there is much we can uncover from the past. A highlight of 2012 was the retrospective of Shinji Somai, a neglected master of Japanese cinema. It’s comforting to sit within the warmth of a cinema audience and share the collective pleasure of a well-known and restored classic. Even more so to shine a light upon a wonderful filmmaker criminally ignored, to provide them a well-deserved moment in the sun. Sadly this is a posthumous honour for Somai. It was refreshing to see hardened critics scratch their head, mouthing ‘who?’ as this was announced. Yet they lapped up gems such as PP Rider (1983) and Typhoon Club (1985). Here was intelligent curation and, hopefully, a western blind spot now corrected.
A glance to the future and a further education was provided by a strand of Philippine New Wave cinema. These films were tied together by enfant terrible Khavn De La Cruz’s documentary This is Not a Film Movement (2012). When I spoke with De La Cruz he mentioned that there was duplicitous meaning to this title: the new wave is in fact a series of waves, he told me, each filmmaker entirely individual in style and theme. Secondly, there is little actual film involved. These are independent filmmakers using the digital medium to cut a twisted umbilical cord tying them to mainstream studios keen to temper their vision. This new democratization of cinema has liberated stories of corruption and child poverty, a dark underbelly which needs to be exposed and addressed. Highlights here were Emerson Reyes’ wonderful love letter to Manilla, MNL143 (2012), and Mes De Guzman’s emotionally searing tale of doomed feral youth, Of Skies and Earth (2011).
Cinema here transcended sheer entertainment. When I spoke with Fujiwara previously he agreed on those three pillars of the BBC: ‘Educate, inform and entertain are exactly our ambitions. I think the idea of entertainment tends to limit people. This is what we try to get away from […] If you approach the film from the point of view “all I want is to be entertained” […] then alright you pay your money you have the experience of that and then it’s over. I think putting it in the category of entertainment is closing it off, saying it doesn’t have any real relevance to me. It’s not going to change my life, the way I think about love, the way I think about politics, the way I think about family. The role of the festival is to create opportunities for people to look at films in ways that could change their lives.’
Worthy indeed, but what seemed lacking this year was that fizz of pure entertainment, to feel rather than to think. The regular ‘Night Moves’ strand of guilty pleasures proved to be hit and miss. Blair Witch (1999) director Eduardo Sanchez provided bombastic sound design and well-cultured dread in the flawed Lovely Molly (2011) while Irish creature-feature Grabbers (2012) was deemed a delicious success. Others were judged more harshly, with portmanteau horror V/H/S (2012) playing true to form for this mode of film, a disappointingly fractured experience of unequal shards.
Perhaps what was also absent was the big hitters. There was no Michael Haneke or Jacques Audiard. EIFF can’t compete on these names and so must identify up-and-comers (or supposed down-and-outers). But they don’t get much bigger than William Friedkin, whose nocturnally dark comedy Killer Joe (2012) was a bold opening feature for the festival. The world premiere of Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound System (2012) was perhaps the event’s crown jewels. He is an outstanding talent and his presence at the screenings and at industry events added real gravitas. Fujiwara expanded: ‘It’s vital for the festival because then we’re creating the chance for the audience to meet these filmmakers, to have a talk with them […] This is a vital thing for a festival to do. Plus we’re giving chances for local filmmakers in Scotland to meet the film people of the world because they could be the future collaborators on projects which will enhance the Scottish film industry.’
And one they could easily meet was our friend smoking outside of the cinema. Wang Bing has for a number of years projected digital truths of modern China. The camera seems not to exist as he soaks up harsh realities in Coal Money (2009). We are simply there with bottom rung workers, arguing, smoking, seeing and feeling as they do. We learn more from this stark reflection of everyday life than from one hundred newsreels, these are unfiltered truths. The old adage of ‘I am a camera’ has never been so true. In Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (2007) we are exposed to a full life of struggle over three harrowing hours as an elderly woman pitches her pain straight through the lens. These memories were disturbingly visualized in his first fictional feature, The Ditch (2010), a painful taste of a prison-camp existence where humanity is reduced to its basest form. This guest spot was a statement of intent: no red carpet to satisfy the hungry masses, just pure filmmaking.
A film festival must aspire to more than a weekend multiplex visit. It is about both interaction and understanding. These guest filmmakers provide that added value and Edinburgh tasted both success and failure this year. Shinya Tsukamoto of Tetsuo (1989) fame had to call off at last minute, a very cruel blow. Here is a man who would have placated the cult followers of that many-headed monster ‘the audience’. Jim Broadbent and Elliot Gould headed the Michael Powell and International award juries, and in turn gave us audience sessions. In addition, Oscar-winning director of Man on Wire (2008), James Marsh, provided an industry tutorial to compliment the UK premiere of his IRA drama Shadow Dancer (2012), starring Clive Owen. These experiences provide insight into their work and are what take EIFF beyond the simple viewing experience and presents more than a list of films screened before general release.
So, EIFF has escaped the flames of 2011 but must continue rising from here. Now, rather than a full panel-beating, it needs only the tightening of a couple of screws. The press were courted this year and fed daily rations of gratis booze, the ideal tactic to maintain smiles and provoke discussion over the day’s viewings. Now the public must also be rewarded with incentives to gamble on the unknown. Some of this film is a little too rich for everyday tastes so they could make a punt more affordable with bulk offers. Audiences must be welcomed with open arms, after all they are the people who buy the tickets. Chris Fujiwara is a man who believes they can transcend their role of bums in seats. ‘I’d like to think of Edinburgh as a place where an extraordinarily intense dialogue takes place. A very wide ranging dialogue about the possibilities […] and about the past and present and future of film.’ Hopefully part of that future lies in Edinburgh. With the recent statement release that Chris has signed up for another three years I’m now confident that it does.