Edinburgh International Film Festival 2011 – My Best of the Fest

I went to the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) in 2010, and discovered that film festivals are exactly the kind of thing I should be doing. Earlier this year I therefore went to the Tricky Women animation film festival in Vienna, which was intense and wonderful, and then attended EIFF again this year, and enjoyed it again, but in a different way.

Wait, wasn’t the film festival terrible this year?

It was different, that’s for sure. Here’s my understanding:

i) A 3-year Film Council grant came to an end in 2010; by one account the grant had been conditional on the film festival taking place in June instead of August (when all the other festival craziness is going on), by another account the grant was to support a move to a June slot. In any case, with less money, something had to give.

ii) Festival director Hannah McGill stood down after 2010’s festival, and it seems they struggled to find a suitable replacement.

This produced some major changes:

  • No red carpet events
  • No competition
  • Much fewer new films

From the perspective of the industry, this was something of a disaster.

As a regular punter that just wants a fun film holiday, I was more bothered by some of the minor changes:

  • No ticket deals
  • Difficulties finding out what was on

Last year you could get tickets to 4 films for £24. This year there was no such deal (although some events cost only £6 anyway), but more worryingly there were a number of late-announced special offers like 2-for-1 on documentaries, perhaps in response to poor ticket sales. Naturally this makes me think that next year I should buy fewer tickets in advance and wait for the last-minute deals, and others may do the same, so creating a vicious circle.

In practice we ended up going to about the same number of events, it cost about 20% more, and the events were actually better than last year. Meanwhile I was able to keep up with what was going on through the Twitter hashtag #EdFilmFest, so that solved the problem of finding out about when and where things were happening. Net result: for me, EIFF 2011 was just as enjoyable as 2010, if not more so.

My Top 5 Events

5. Polyester, presented in Odorama
There are some experiences in life in which one can derive satisfaction from the feeling that you are experiencing it in the ideal way (like drinking Afternoon Tea in the afternoon). This was just such an event.

I was only familiar with John Waters from his stand-up / autobiography This Filthy World (2006), but was very interested to see some of his notorious back catalogue. Midnight Movies put on Polyester (1981) at the Filmhouse, at midnight on a Friday, with a pre-recorded bespoke introduction from Waters himself, and superbly reproduced Odorama cards, matching the original design and array of 10 novelty scratch-and-sniff experiences which the film cues you to interact with at certain points.

The film was deleriously over-the-top with a rich undercurrent of satire (as I had expected); the smells were amazing, far more than a token effort; and the screening was packed with exactly the right kind of crowd for the movie, all of which created a sublime cinematic experience.

4. The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema
Not related to Jon Waters, this is a 2006 TV documentary that ended up exceeding its originally planned run-time to become a 3-part 2.5 hour epic, and consists almost entirely of a strange man with a beard talking about how Freudian a lot of cinema is.

On the face of it, this does not sound like a very good idea, which may be why it was shown in the smallest of the screens. In practice, though, it was the most consistently entertaining showing of all the films I saw at the festival.

The strange man with a beard is Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek, who has a wide knowledge of film and also of Freudian and Lacanian thought, and he evidently finds it tremendous fun to view one through the lens of the other. His ideas are just the kind of thing I occasionally read and find ridiculous (the floors of the hotel in Psycho represent the Ego, Superego and Id; David Lynch’s recurring nightmare figures are all ultimately oedipal in nature; the blank screen of the cinema represents the mysterious ur-space our minds imagine toilets flush into) – but when these theories are delivered with such brio, and intercut with perfectly selected moments as his cinematic references, it all makes sense.

The film is directed and perhaps more importantly edited by Sophie Fiennes, who was present for a Q&A and is clearly a great admirer of Žižek’s ideas. It turns out that almost everything he says in the film was delivered off-the-cuff, through rambling 15-minute takes, conducted with the DVDs of the relevant movies close to hand for immediate reference where necessary. I got the impression that few others would have the patience and enthusiasm to do the painstaking work of connecting these individually cogent but collectively disparate ramblings together to form a coherent structure – indeed, the process of doing so apparently took 9 months.

Interest is also maintained with some artful reconstruction work in which Žižek delivers his monologues while apparently standing within the very sets or locations of the moments he is referring to, a technique which apparently served to stimulate his ideas significantly, and also just makes the whole thing more fun.

The film fully exploits Fair Use making liberal use of other works to illustrate points. Unfortunately it seems distributors are afraid that this won’t hold up in court (although it should), so if you like the sound of it you’ll need to order it from their own microsite.

3. Troll Hunter
It’s often hard to identify films you’d be interested in at a festival. In many instances no trailer yet exists, and reviews are scarce or non-existent.

Troll Hunter was rather easier to spot. A strikingly honest and informative title is backed up by a trailer that shows you that even though this is a low-budget independent film, it certainly delivers some excellent Troll action:

As the director pointed out afterwards, the ‘mockumentary’ style has tremendous benefits for those on a limited budget: you only have to render your effects from one angle, and you don’t need to do any when the cameraman is running away from something, as he must inevitably do from time to time. (Of course, this takes for granted the comparatively recent ability to composite CG effects seamlessly into hand-held footage even with a low budget, as was also demonstrated last year at EIFF with Gareth Edwards’s Monsters)

Even more than I had hoped, the film turns out to sit squarely in the small subgenre of movies in which fantastical events are treated as normal or even boring by the protagonists, other examples being Ghostbusters, Mystery Men, Galaxy Quest, Shaun of the Dead, and Skeletons. Troll Hunter, while primarily played for laughs, is filled with the kind of small details that ground it in reality, dozens of little ideas which collectively give the film the ring of truth.

Sadly, the script was not too concerned with making sure that all actions were driven by plausible decisions on the part of the characters (particularly once the dangerous nature of trolls becomes apparent), but there’s so much else to enjoy about it that I’m happy to forgive that failing in this case.

The film will be on general release in the UK as of 9th September.


2. The Lion King in 3D
I blogged about this in more detail earlier; the short version is that, amazingly, pushing 2D animation into 3D actually works.


1. Bike-powered Belleville Rendez-Vous
This event was mentioned on the EIFF blog, and later on Twitter (which is how I caught wind of it), but seemingly nowhere else. This was a great shame, because the concept was so brilliant I’d have attended a version of it every day of the festival if it was possible.

Four bikes power a battery that runs the projector, four other bikes power the sound, and the audience is invited to join in the effort (all courtesy of the Guerilla Cinema Project). In this way it pairs something I want (film) with something I need (exercise). Brilliant.

Due to the lack of promotion, the audience was actually very small, and although the event was staffed with some incredibly fit volunteers to keep things ticking over, when we decided to step up with about half an hour of the movie to go, there really wasn’t any immediate prospect of relief should we tire. This was also brilliant, as it added a sense of danger while demanding more than I realised I had to give.

The choice of the film could surely not have been more apt: The Belleville Rendez-Vous (2003).

A key scene in the film sees characters doing almost exactly the same thing: pedalling on bikes that power a film screening in front of them (although for very different reasons). Naturally I made sure I was on the bike at that point of the film (having seen it once before many years ago) for maximum weirdness.

Some observations of the emergent behaviour:

If the event had had a strong turnout, I’m not sure how they could have solved the participation problem in a way that kept everybody happy. You can’t be sure how many people in the audience want to step up, or for how long they are prepared to cycle. In that context, I’m not sure what simple allocation system would ensure the film keeps playing and that everyone that wants to gets to participate. As it was, it was more like a game of survival; with so few people it felt as if everyone had to give their all just to keep the lights on. Which was actually awesome.

I would love to have seen the cycling effort data across all the screenings tracked against the events of the film. Keeping an eye on the battery meter, the other cyclists, and my own feelings, it does seem that some interesting feedback loops are at work. For example, at one point the protagonists are cycling with great effort up a hill, prompting an empathic response of extra effort from us, and a notable drop in our effort when they finally made it to the top.

Achievement Stickers
Finally, as has become customary, I made myself some stickers as incentives to do different things on the holiday. Notable non-film events were a visit to Rosslyn Chapel (made insanely famous by the Da Vinci Code), which is fully fascinating in its own right:

… and the Falkirk Wheel, which is self-evidently stupendous:

… with the following results in my sticker book:

So it turns out that even when EIFF is very different, it’s still great. Unfortunately the response to this year’s problems may well be to reschedule it to August, at which point Edinburgh becomes ridiculously overcrowded, which doesn’t appeal to me at all. Oh well.

– metatim

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