Gina Davidson: EIFF ‘rediscovered its mojo’

Robert Carlyle and Ashley Jensen at the EIFF 2015. Picture: Neil Hanna
Robert Carlyle and Ashley Jensen at the EIFF 2015. Picture: Neil Hanna
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Last month, for the first time in years, I went to a “red carpet event” at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Photographers were busy snapping while the gathered crowd passed remarks about the clothes, the hair, the attitudes struck by those whom the paparazzi were actually interested in capturing on camera. The invited men were in black tie, the women in sequins and heels . . . it was all very glamorous.

And then there was the film, a black comedy by Robert Carlyle which had the audience emoting with every high and low, maybe because of the heady occasion or maybe because it was a pretty good film.

All in all it felt like the Film Festival had rediscovered its mojo. Certainly the ticket sales seem to have proved that, with its highest attendance in seven years. More than 50,000 people watched something on offer from the programme for the first time since the festival moved from August to June.

That particular evening the atmosphere was such that it could have been the late Nineties when Lizzy Francke at the helm of the two-week event.

It was Francke who said back then that the festival has reached a “turning point”. Its reputation was riding so high that film companies were approaching the organisers to be included in the programme, rather than the other way round.

The reason for that had been years of hard work to be internationally recognised for showing independent films – a lot of them Scottish and British – but also to be a place where “Hollywood” was welcome.

Catherine Zeta-Jones, Pierce Brosnan, Sean Penn, Sigourney Weaver, Heather Graham, Charlize Theron, Gabriel Byrne and of course Sean Connery had all been invited guests, upping the glamour stakes considerably.

While even Robert Carlyle and Ashley Jensen, two stars of the evening, might baulk at being included in such a starry list of names, their presence certainly helped to make the night feel much more Tinseltown than has been the case in recent years. Ewan McGregor was also on hand this year to launch his own new film and Karen Gillan was on one of the prize juries, while others on the red carpet included Jane Seymour, Rhys Ifans and Emily Mortimer.

There is also now talk of moving the festival back to August to rejoin the others taking place at the same time. It’s always worth consideration, despite the success of ticket sales this June, for the fact is that they have never recovered to pre-move levels, due no doubt to the population explosion in Edinburgh when it becomes the Festival city.

Of course, the cinema purists will be disdainful of such populism. There’s been the odd comment about the programme being “dumbed down” or catering to the mass market, but there has to be a hard-headed realism to running a film festival. There’s no point in just adhering to the demands of auteurs for arthouse pictures when it’s the mass populace which brings in the money to ensure the festival is a financial success. And secure finances of course, in turn, mean the festival’s artistic director can take more chances with small budget, independent movies.

However this year, under the direction of Mark Adams, the festival has shown it can hold its own if it gets the programming right – and it has just enough starlight to make the whole thing sparkle.