Edinburgh’s new film festival chief on the challenge of leading the event into a new era

She was charged with leading one of Edinburgh’s most prestigious festivals into a new era – without having attended the event before, or even set foot in the city.

Tuesday, 31st May 2022, 7:00 pm
Kristy Matheson is the newly-appointed creative director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Kristy Matheson is the newly-appointed creative director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Picture: Ian Georgeson

But if the responsibility of reviving the fortunes of the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) may seem daunting, Kristy Matheson is up for the challenge of leading the event in its 75th anniversary year – and moving it back into line with the rest of the city’s flagship cultural events.

After more than 20 years immersed in the Australian film industry, she is in the final stages of programming the world’s longest continually-running film festival.

She may not be familiar with the EIFF’s following, but insists key priorities will be attracting new audiences, ensuring its programme is diverse, giving the people of Edinburgh more ownership of the event and underlining its internationalism.

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The Filmhouse on Lothian Road is the long-time headquarters of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Picture: Aleksandra Janiak

A surprise appointment when she was unveiled as the EIFF’s new creative director last June, Matheson was a senior executive at Australia’s national museum of screen culture when she applied.

Matheson, director of film at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, in Melbourne, said: “We had just finished a $40 million redevelopment, which we delivered during Covid, but had a lovely opening at the start of last year. It was then this job came up. Our opening had been a big success and I thought it might be time to do something entirely new.

“I’d never set foot on Scottish soil, but I did feel a strange connection to Edinburgh going back to when I worked at a festival in my home town in Brisbane, when films would move around the world and Edinburgh was on right after ours.

“I remember looking at Edinburgh’s programmes and thinking ‘oh my god, look at these films’. They were high-quality, eclectic, interesting and daring.

Danny Boyle was among the special guests at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2019. Picture: Andy Pryde

“There’s an immense amount of history with this film festival. It really looms large. All of the Edinburgh festivals have this enormous presence out there in the world. I’m sure there’s a different perception on the inside but, on the outside, everybody knows them."

Matheson admitted it was “very strange” to have been immersed in programming a festival she is yet to experience herself, but said huge efforts were being made to attract as wide a demographic as possible.

She said: “If you do this kind of work you’re kind of obsessed with audiences and who they are.

“There can be big barriers to people feeling they can enter into art spaces.

A full house at the Filmhouse, the headquarters of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Picture: Chris Scott

“At the moment, we’re talking about every single film and who is going to be sitting on the front row, what they look like, and what they read and listen to.

"I'm fully aware that I’m asking people to see a movie that by someone they’ve maybe never heard of, they might not know anyone on the poster if there is a poster, about a subject that might not be easy to describe.

“I understand that it’s a lot to ask someone to give us two hours. The one thing I can do is promise not to waste their time.”

Matheson wants to tackle potential audience barriers between the EIFF and other events like the Edinburgh International Festival, the Fringe and the book festival, which will be running at the same time for the first time in 14 years.

St Andrew Square will be hosting outdoor screenings at this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival.

She said: “A lot of people in the industry seem really happy for us to be back in August. There’s a lot of fondness for the film festival in general.

“Being back in the middle of this big exploration of different ideas gives us an opportunity to put film back into that conversation.

“Film is also collaborative by its very nature and pulls all these other art forms in.

“There was a time when people would say they were a film director or a TV director, but no-one would say that any more.

"Audiences don’t really care what it’s called, they just want it to be good and to have a reason to come out.”

Matheson’s first programme will be around a third smaller than the last full-scale EIFF before Covid, with around 80 features, around 50 more than last year’s edition, when indoor screenings were limited to the Filmhouse and the Festival Theatre.

Karen Gillan on the Edinburgh International Film Festival red carpet.

She said: “I really like the idea that the festival does not feel as if it has a big sprawling programme, but feels manageable. You’re not going to be able to see everything, but I don’t want people to look at our website and feel immediately overwhelmed.

“I also like the idea of people coming out of the Filmhouse and strolling down the street to see someone at the book festival, seeing a great dance performance or walking into a bar and seeing a comedian from a far-flung part of the world. I want them to encounter different ideas and feel recharged.”

Less important for Matheson are the annual demands for Edinburgh to attract the world’s biggest film stars to its red carpets each summer.

She said: “If we only do one thing, I would want it to be putting on a programme that people in Edinburgh connect with.

“Maybe for some people the only metric for that is seeing someone famous on a red carpet.

“But this is a really sophisticated city with a deep history of curiosity, science and literature, and people really like going to the movies here.

"I want people to be excited and feel they own the festival a bit. If we were only chasing red carpets it would really limit what we get to bring to audiences.”

Matheson revealed that the EIFF’s founding principles would be reflected in a “reimagining” of its most coveted prize. The Michael Powell Award for best British film will be renamed the Powell & Pressburger Award in honour of the legendary filmmaking duo, Kent-born Powell and Hungarian-born Emeric Pressburger.

She said “The festival’s internationalism is really important, especially in its 75th anniversary.

“Maybe it’s because I was literally stuck at the bottom of the world because of Covid. There was a sense of deep isolation and a real tyranny of distance.

“I don’t feel that I’m in a position to comment about Brexit, but I do think there’s a danger in the UK feeling culturally isolated. I don’t think that’s what people here want.”