Something weird, and I think rather exciting, has happened to the Edinburgh International Film Festival this year- though it seems that most of the members of the press and public do not share my view, and judging by the advertisement for a new Director of EIFF, I guess neither do the Board! Oh well, each to their own…
So, this year’s Festival was a far cry from the usual glitz and glamour of the red-carpet premiere affair and the EIFF’s long-established history of wheeling out the big name stars. Instead, the 65th Edinburgh annual celebration of all things film was decidedly more experimental, cross-platform and events-based than ever before. I suspect this change of direction may have been necessitated by a reduction in funding, in-house squabbles and a change of director, arts council politics and a decrease in industry delegate interest as a result of the Festival moving from it’s traditional August slot, however, whatever the cause, the affect was obvious, and I actually think it has made the Festival a much more interesting place to be.
Unfortunately, this failure to attract the A-list celebs has, I suspect, led to a serious drop in ticket sales and revenue, hence the major shake-up. Yet, whilst I appreciate that all Festivals ultimately need bums on seats in order to justify their existence, I don’t believe that this means you should always feed audiences what they have come to expect - that would result in a very dull and stagnant art scene indeed. Rather people should be encouraged to look at things in a new way and to see beyond the confines of what EIFF 2011 director James Mullighan calls the “sausage factory” of the industry circuit.
Presenting a massively stripped back programme of feature film premieres, the Festival instead put forward 10 major themes and/or genres, with another 3 popping up under the ‘Events’ section. With everything from Conflict/Reportage to Out the Box and Experimental, this is obviously far too many categories to successfully manage and it gives the programme a lack of cohesion and focus, yet I do think it is at least trying to push the boat out a bit and to stretch our imagination as to what is or is not relevant for a 21st century film festival.
In particular I liked the ‘Perspectives’ category which looked at films suggested by guest curators such as Gus Van Sant and Alan Warner, and which included cult classics such as Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End (1970) and Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World (2003) starring Isabella Rossellini and her amazing exploding glass beer legs! Also, I thought the documentary programme was really strong this year, with some absolute crackers from both the UK and overseas on show (four of which are reviewed below).
It was great to see so many shorts in the programme and to see films and exhibitions presented in different spaces to the usual old favourites. (Thank god there was no need for any more trips to the hideous multiplex in Fountainbridge this year!) One such new screening ground was Inspace, where I saw 1970s scissor thriller The Eyes of Laura Mars, as part of the Reel Science programme. This is an uber hip, clean and sparkly-white new venue which is part of the School of Informatics at Edinburgh University, a faculty which explores new media and digital technology and its impact on modern day culture (pretty relevant, wouldn’t you say?).
There were also club nights and master classes, exhibitions, interventions and sountrack/VJ events, showing that there is potentially much more to film than the traditional 90 minutes of sitting in the dark.
Here are just a selection of the films and events on offer:
OUR BROKEN VOICE
The first thing I went to see at the Edinburgh International Film Festival this year ironically wasn’t even a film, BUT it was like being in a film.
For a few years now Duncan Speakman and his Subtlemob crew have been creating site-specific interventions which enable ordinary members of the public to step outside their own lives and into the life of another for a brief period in time, armed with little more than an mp3 player, a set of headphones and the occasional prop. The genius of this inspiring concept lies in the fact that you are in the real world, in real time, as yourself, while following a set of instructions which construct a fictional set of characters and narrative around you. But the best bit is that you don’t always know who else is sharing this experience and who is a merely a random bystander going about their every day business. Confused? I’ll try and explain...
So basically, you sign up for the event and are emailed a set of instructions which include a specific location, a precise start time and a list of things to bring with you. You are then directed to a choice of mp3 files to download. You can only choose one file and you must not listen to the file before the start of the event. Then you turn up at the designated time and place, tune in and press play. For the next thirty minutes you are totally immersed in the world of the mp3 and in the story which is unfolding through and around you. In order for the piece to work you must become that character whose file you chose and you must trust and follow the instructions given to you. This is a really strange but liberating experience. You feel deeply connected to the world around you, yet you are aware that you are also cut off from that world; plugged into your headphones with one eye looking out for others who may or may not be participating in the same event and the other concentrating on absorbing this really quite odd but magical experience. It is as if you are an actor in a film, yet there are no sets or mikes, no cameras or lighting rigs, it’s just you and a bunch of other people wandering around, carrying out random gestures and acts of kindness, plugged into your mp3 players.
I just loved the idea of this and of all the questions it throws up about social connectivity, interaction, communication and how we relate to the world around us, but most of all I loved the way it made you feel. The only thing that ruined it a bit for me was the location. This particular piece was set in a train station and because of all the goddamn ticket barriers, you were quite restricted in where you could move. This meant that you were operating in quite a constricted space and so became really aware of all the other people who may well be playing the same character as you - which I registered with some annoyance when I found myself being one of four girls trailing the same man with an umbrella! ‘Damn’, I thought, ‘get out of my film! This is my film!’ Despite this small outburst of prima-donna-ness, I would encourage anyone who gets the chance to try out a Subtlemob intervention. It really is quite a special experience.
I fell in love watching Jarred Alterman’s lyrical, meditative documentary, Convento.
This incredibly beautiful, poetic and really quite short film (coming in at only 54 minutes) follows the unusual lives of a Dutch family residing in the isolated paradise of a restored, medieval monastery in Portugal. Each of the three characters have their own very different relationship with their surroundings and each contribute in a unique way to this magical place, which almost appears to inhabit them rather than the other way round. The mother (a former prima ballerina with the Dutch National Ballet) spends most of her time nurturing her organic, vegetable garden and weeding the pond so that the turtles can breathe (love it!), whilst the quieter and more introverted son, Louis, communes with nature through his love and protection of the animals that live on site, but before you write this off as some new age hippy retreat, all garlands and chanting, let me introduce to you the real stars of the show… In amongst all this self-sufficiency and ye olde worldiness live the ingenious and morbidly-beautiful kinetic creations of Christiaan Zwawnikkens (the elder son).
These incredible sci-fi creatures are carefully constructed sculptures made mostly from skulls, bones, grizzled bits of dead animals found on the land (and somewhat ironically neatly stored in plastic Ikea boxes in the artist’s studio) and bits of scrap machinery salvaged from the local tip. The end result is a set of wonderful, Mad Max-esque, macabre animatronics which take on a life of their own; wandering in and out of the room, gibbering and chattering in the background in the same way that a domestic pet might do. The effect is absolutely delightful! The family seem to accept these mythical creatures in perfect harmony with the unique world in which they live. Which, in the case of the animatronic donkey which turns the water-wheel that irrigates the land, is absolutely true (as well as being quite ingenious!) for here the inanimate come alive and the electronic blend with the organic in a kind of Blade Runner meets The Good Life.
The film itself is deliberately quiet with no irritating narrative voiceover, or series of probing questions from the film-maker, to detract from the magic of the story and all its surreal poetic beauty. In particular, I liked the scene in which we watch Christiaan foraging in the scrap yard at sunset as his mother might forage in her garden, for it is this ability to see beauty amongst the random detritus of both nature and man, and to combine it in such a strangely harmonious way, that makes Christiaan’s pieces so special and Convento such a wee gem of a film.
My only criticism of the movie is the unfortunate and unnecessary ending, which seems to reenact some random fantasy of the film-maker’s which is totally out of keeping with the rest of the work. God knows what some English Crusader on a horse has to do with a Dutch family living in Portugal, but never mind! Thankfully even this somewhat cheesy and quite random ending could not detract from the charm of the rest of the film.
CONVENTO KINETIC SCULPTURES AND CINEMA
Held in conjunction with the screening of Convento was as small exhibition of some of the sculptures which appear in the film. The opening of this exhibition also featured an improvised sound piece by Christiaan, performed alongside local artist and music-maker Emma Bowen and her collection of random musical instruments and sound-making devices, including a shovel and brush with, yup, you guessed it, bits of bones. All very in-keeping!
It was great to get the chance to see the sculptures up close and to experience their clicking, whirring, clacking presence first hand. This is exactly what I meant by my appreciation of the more open and cross-platform nature of this year’s festival, for I doubt you would have got the sheep-skull fighting-animatronic twins in an A-lister, red-carpeted affair!
THE BALLAD OF GENESIS AND LADY JAYE
They say that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction and I certainly found this to be the case in the extremely kooky, but fascinating, Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye. This 2011 documentary by Marie Losier follows the bizarre love story of experimental artist and musician Genesis P-Orridge, and his partner Lady Jaye, as they explore their unique concept of ‘pandrogyny’. Aiming to create a new identity, sexuality, gender and somehow shared entity, by physically transforming themselves to look like each other, this is an art/life project in the extreme.
Using Burroughs and Gysins’ concept of the ‘cut-up’ (whereby random extracts from existing materials are cut up and re-ordered to create a new work) as the basis for this exploration, Genesis and Lady Jaye become a physical embodiment of the concept; literally letting themselves be cut up and reordered to create this ‘new form’ by simultaneously undergoing a series of cosmetic surgeries that take a feature from one and create in on the other - a nose here, a chin there…Whilst coming across as narcissistic in the extreme, Genesis describes this all as a true act of love; a kind of attempt to merge themselves into one being and one body as well as one soul. Genesis even goes so far as to claim that waking up next to Lady Jaye after their simultaneous breast implant operations on Valentine’s day was ‘the most romantic thing I have ever experienced’. Hmmmmm, bit contentious, that one, but then Genesis never was one to shy away from controversy or the breaking of conventions.
One of the founding members of industrial music and psych-rock pioneers Throbbing Gristle, Genesis has deliberately shunned convention for most of his life, yet despite talking about getting dressed up in short skirts and sexy underwear in order to do the housework (it’s almost like Freddie Mercury in I Want To Break Free, minus the tash) he still manages to come across as a pretty genuine bloke. He just doesn’t give a shit what most people think about him. And, though we may question both the method and the outcome (and let’s face it, Genesis still kinda just looks like a man with tits and a trout pout), it is hard to question the motivation when we are watching this deeply personal, highly confessional film, which ends up being a kind of eulogy to a true, but highly unconventional, love.
SHUT UP LITTLE MAN! AN AUDIO MISADVENTURE
A new documentary feature by Australian director Matthew Bate, Shut Up Little Man! tells the (at first) quite amusing, but then really morally questionable and highly problematic tale of the illicit recording, subsequent cult explosion, controversial copyright-squabbling and money-grabbing generated by the Shut Up Little Man! cassette tape phenomena. In a situation that goes viral (in a 1980s C-90 way) and quickly escalates way out of control, this is an interesting but quite uncomfortable film exploring of complex notions of exploitation, voyeurism and privacy vs. public space.
SOUND IT OUT
This is cracking wee documentary by Jeanie Finlay about an independent record store in the northern town of Stockton on Tees, near Newcastle. Set in amongst this area of high unemployment and massive social deprivation, the shop (which is now so sadly a dying breed) offers a social and cultural sanctuary to all types of music lover from the local area; from the happy hardcore boys to the Status Quo fanatic, from the charming Metal lads to the lecherous but somehow endearing old Rock ‘n’ Roll fan. They are nearly all blokes (as is the case when it comes to most things vinyl, for some reason) all regulars and they are all totally unique characters, but the thing that holds the place and the film together, is the owner Tom and his staff; old pal Chris and sister Kelly.
You get the impression that Tom lives and breathes that shop and he presides over the old fashioned counter with a warm welcome, a vast and eclectic musical knowledge, a good sense of humour and a kind heart. He just loves music and he likes people who love music. There is no snobbery or prejudice and no genre which takes precedence over another. Good music is good music and vinyl is sacred, that is the first and only rule.
This is a hard town in hard times and Sound it Out offers the community a much needed reprieve from the outside world. Finlay’s camera work is mostly static, focusing on the characters, their stories and gestures, rather than trying to do anything fancy and distracting, and this is a method which suits the subject matter and feel of the piece very well. It is a homespun kind of movie for a homespun kind of crowd. I hope it attracts a whole new raft of fans and visitors to the shop and I would seriously encourage any geeky lover of music and all things vinyl to check it Sound it Out. It will warm your heart and make you want to dig out that record player and dust off some old LPs.
THE LAST CIRCUS
By far the most disappointing of all of the things that I saw at EIFF this year, was Alex de la Iglesia’s The Last Circus. This was the only premiere feature film I went to see in the whole festival and I can safely say that it was pretty much, well… rubbish! Waaaaaay too long and with one of those endings that gets more ridiculous by the second, I left wishing I‘d bailed earlier so I could have at least got the last bus home.
So, the story involves this troupe of circus performers who accidentally get caught up in fighting against Franco’s fascists in the 1937 uprising in Madrid and the machete-wielding-crazy-daddy-clown gets imprisoned for years as a result. Vowing revenge, the son of the once-happy clown is now destined to become a sad clown and so begins the tale of our unhappy hero’s demise into obsession and madness. In amongst the spiraling chaos that surrounds him, we bear witnesses to the dark unveiling of the highly misogynistic and deeply cruel world of the real circus, trapped behind all the glitz and glamour of the sparkly costumes and showcase smiles. There follows a catalogue of extreme acts of violence and gruesome retribution before the now caustic-soda-ed and iron-burnt sad clown goes on his last crazy rampage around town wearing a weird Punch and Judy outfit and armed with a kalashnikov. It was all just a bit too much and, whilst I did enjoy the muted colour palette and the quirky carnivalesque of the film, I would certainly say that I expected much more from this “unique genius” (EIFF brochure) and Silver Lion award wining Best Director - especially when it came to wrapping up the twisted farce and chaos of loose plots that was The Last Circus. It was certainly the least interesting of all the things I saw at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival.
So there we have it, the award-winning feature film gets a 1 star from me, while the film events and documentaries come out the clear 4 and 5 star winners. What can I say? Maybe I’m not the audience that the usual EIFF brigade are looking for, but personally, I think it would be a real shame to go back to the old way of doing things just to satisfy the cash cow. Maybe the new Director (whoever they may be) should credit their audience with just a little more intelligence and gumption than to go back to feeding us the same old, same old, big-name hits. I do hope so, for there was some really good, alternative stuff on offer here and it would be a shame to lose that hard fought edge back to the ‘sausage factory’ machine.