In its seventy-first iteration this year, the Edinburgh International Film Festival strived to attract interested parties into its embrace with as diverse and comprehensive a selection of cinema as possible. Originally starting in in 1947, this gathering in Scotland’s capital is the longest continually-running film festival in the world, and it has lost none of its luster or charm over the years.
This year, there was a distinct feeling of openness that accompanied the festival, bringing films of all sizes, scales, and stakes. Friendliness was in abundance and fimmakers, producers, writers, actors, and press alike were all as eager to engage in conversations. This served to emphasise their own attachment to the festival, and also created an environment perfect for discussing the works of others and generally enjoying the festival for what it has set out to do: act as a celebration and a point of recognition for films from across the world, and a home from home for cinephiles of all shapes and sizes.
While I did indeed sink my teeth into as much of the meaty catalogue on offer, one can only do so much but nothing I managed to make my way to was truly displeasing, and I regularly found myself pleasantly surprised, impressed, and humbled by a multitude of these filmmaking efforts. My only regret is that I couldn’t have experienced more of it (or spoken to Kevin Bacon. That would have been awesome). Anyway here is culturised’s summary of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, giving you an overview of some of the best films on offer in contemporary cinema.
Delicate Balance (Fráfil equilibrio) (2016) – Guillermo López
A hopeful critique on the problems of contemporary life, this documentary proved particularly effective in everything it did differently to your conventional documentary. Rejecting the domineering use of talking heads and archived footage, Delicate Balance (Fráfil equilibrio) instead opts for a more active use of cinematic language. Treating interviews like shot-reverse-shot conversations and surreal, almost dream-like sequences of modern cities, it projects itself as a new take on the genre.
Intertwining three narratives from across the planet (Japan, Morocco, and Spain) with commentary on the political, environmental, social, and cultural situation of the modern world from José Mujica, former President of the Oriental Republic of Uruguay, while optimistic, it reveals the dark undercurrents that govern our lives and our perspectives on the meaning of our own lives.
While it doesn’t shy away from darker moments such as people being beaten trying to cross from Morocco to Spain, hard-pressed individuals being evicted from their social housing in Madrid, or the malaise of the richer working-classes in Japan, it boldly proposes a way forward utilising a concept of global brotherhood and solidarity. Doing so through its cinematic language, its “global” music (the composer deliberately used instruments from around the world in the score), and its utilisation of an optimistic outlook, emphasised by its focus on the love and connection between people within communities, that might engage people’s minds with radical ideas in a positive frame of reference.
Snow Woman (Yuki Onna) (2016) – Kiki Sugino
With some of the most naturalistic and imposing images of the festival, Snow Woman flaunts some of the most proficient utilisation of camerawork that imbues its images and atmosphere with both beauty and ominousness. While unconventional in its horror (akin more to that of Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone than something like Insidious), the film creates a calm uneasiness in its cinematography, and its narrative meanders more than thrills. Instead of a classic tale a spirit, it seeks to weave a mystery of uncertainty around a more conventional tale of the developing relationship between two people.
The film begins focused on two hunters in the snowy wilds of their local mountains, father and son – the former of which soon begins to feel the brunt of the environment around him. Taking shelter in a small hut, the father’s life is taken by a spirit, the titular Snow Woman, and the son is warned if he ever tells anyone of it, she will return for his life too. Upon his return to give his father the traditional burial rites, he comes across of woman called Yuki, identical to the Snow Woman, yet more aloof and seemingly harmless.
What follows is a mystery populated with stark imagery that really lingers in the psyche and a fascinating commentary arises on the nature of tradition in the face of modernisation, the fantastical does not fade without belligerence in this film, instead it haunts the narrative, constantly making the audience question the environment of the characters and never lets them be sure in their footing.
Last Men in Aleppo (2017) – Firas Fayaad
A truly revealing piece of documentary filmmaking that is both entirely necessary and beautifully handled in its delicate touch on the distressing events of the Syrian Civil War. Focused upon a small group from across the organisation the White Helmets, this film reveals the devastating realities of war along with an almost heartwarming depiction of the strength of familial bonds under extreme duress.
The film does not hold back in showing the true horrors committed in Syria: the excavation efforts of the White Helmets whenever a bomb falls, the extreme awareness of the ever-present potential of danger in the immediate airspace around them, or the their blasé attitude when approached with the threats that have become commonplace in their lives. The film depicts honestly, and brutally, what war transforms people into and also the things they are willing to risk in order to help one another.
Just Charlie (2017) – Rebekah Fortune
In Just Charlie, we see the depiction of a talented, young, fourteen-year-old football player who becomes aware that she is a girl trapped in a boy’s body. A rather clean-cut familial drama focused around her family’s (as well as some of the wider community’s) reaction to her previously unannounced transgenderism, the film shines in places. The points in which the camera focuses upon the small discomforts she feels when trapped in “male” clothing really have a depth to their editing that extenuates her panicked, shaky emotions. This is juxtaposed well with the reverse, the comfort she finds in “female” clothing portrayed with lighter, less shakier camerawork, and auditory accompaniment more enchanting then jarring.
While Charlie’s mother, daughter, and football coach are accepting of her change, the bulk of the conflict in the film arises from her father’s belief in the unnaturalness of being transgender, and the fact that the changes she is going through are “different” for those who used to be her friends. The ideas and focus on the prejudices, confusion, and path to acceptance are a stroke of bravery in trying to approach this underrepresented subject matter.
I Dream in Another Language (Sueño en otro idioma) (2017) – Ernesto Contreras
How do you save a language that is only spoken by two characters who hate each other? By weaving a tale of love and denial along with one regarding the very nature and power of language and how it retains to beauty of culture. Set in a small jungle settlement, the protagonist, a linguist called Martín, is attempting to record and retain enough of the local language Zikril, in order to preserve it, and along with it, the filter it imbues on the world. With its subtle mysticism, Zikril is a consistent mystery to anyone who does not speak it, including the audience and serves to always pique their interest, aligning you with Martín in his attempts to understand it.
But to say that I Dream in Another Language (Sueño en otro idioma) derives its resonance from its themes alone does detriment to the subtlety and organic atmosphere created by Contreras’s filmmaking. Constructing an undecipherable language along with an accompanying mythos as well as employing some deft pacing with cinematography that really captures connections and disconnections between people along with the formation of those relationships deserves credit.
In a world where we see native languages of indigenous people slowly disappearing due to the slow destruction of their unique settlements or the spreading prevalence of colonial language, this film is a refreshing and witty take on the work of linguists but also has a lot to say about relationships and religiosity in both the past and the present.
Double Date (2017) – Benjamin Barfoot
A film that has its tongue securely in its cheek, Double Date, doesn’t hold anything back. A comedy-horror (bear with me here) that is fast-paced, funny, and full of some genuinely thorough direction and editing is something of a rarity and this one seems to actually have something to say.
In terms of plot, it’s a simple premise, a 29-year-old virgin (and his mate) wants desperately for him to lose his virginity, so they go on (yep, here comes the title) a double date with two girls they meet at a bar who seem lovely but actually just need a virgin to sacrifice in order to resurrect their dead father. Perfectly simple.
But on a more serious note, the script is pitch perfect, the comedy really breaks up a lot of the fairly gory moments, and some of the action scenes are particularly well executed. While it may lack in genuinely disturbing horror, it has enough horror elements to tide audiences over, and in its own unique way, provide the audience with enough laughs and engagement to get to the end of the film and only want more. And one final detail, it is an outstanding reversal of the predatory attitudes that we see propagated in patriarchal culture.
Rage (Ikari) (2016) – Sang-il Lee
A tense thriller set up in the style of its usual conventions reveals itself to have a complex heart at the core of it all. Rage (Ikari) was perhaps the most performance-driven film at the festival, the likes of Suzu Hirose, Aoi Miyazaki, Takahiro iura, and Ken Watanabe, transform this dark, brooding, and sometimes shocking material into a triple-threat of narratives that all deal with two fundamental themes, rage and trust.
While the overarching plot covers the search for a murderer, this soon fades into the background as the three main narratives arise linked by one crucial element, each involving a man identical to the police image generation of the wanted man. What these narratives give rise to is a deep exploration as to the formation of new relationships with outsiders, be it a new employee, a new friend, or a new lover, and what the burden of trust means to the givers and the receivers.
While narrative interweaving can be difficult at times, the use of cinematic techniques to transition in-between subplots and how common themes across all narratives see the audience hopping between the them, Rage (Ikari) brings tragedy and trust, love and happiness, rage and revenge, into a miasmic viewing experience that can sensually overwhelm its audience.
The Last Photograph (2017) – Danny Huston
Familial tragedies and mementos of the past come together in The Last Photograph, directed by and starring Danny Huston. Tom, the main character, after losing his son in the Lockerbie Bombing, is stricken with grief and clings on to the last physical manifestation of him with his son – you guessed it, a last photograph. After his bag is stolen from his bookshop he is forced out a almost self-imposed exile and isolation from those around him, and forced to approach his grief, seeking reconciliation.
While perhaps not the most inspired story, there are certainly some inspired aspects to the film. Its non-linearity for one seeks to replicate the spectral quality to the catastrophe of the loss of his son, set some time after the bombing, final conversations and penultimate dinners are scattered through the narrative, blurring into the present after the disruptive occurrence of the theft.
Grief seems to disorient Tom completely, forcing him into fits of near-insanity and obsession that go to portray the extent of his heartbreak. In searching for the photograph though, he begins to unravel a thread of something nearing a reconciliation, and in returning to the root of his trauma, along with his son’s old girlfriend whom he never met but felt a strong feeling of estrangement towards. The cinematography here is flat, calm, quiet, utilising a slower pace than the franticness earlier in the narrative. In this quasi-eye-of-the-storm moment, Tom sees inklings of the possibility of an inner peace, and the film makes it’s assessment on grief, that it is both required but cannot be an anchor.
That Good Night (2017) – Eric Styles
An adaptation of the stage play of the same name, and written by NJ Crisp, this new production starring John Hurt (in his penultimate performance) and Charles Dance, explores the very question of the value one places on a life, or rather more specifically, the value of a terminally ill life.
John Hurt plays Ralph, a cantankerous and rude, charming and devious, successful and unsuccessful screenwriter who is facing his terminal illness. A man perplexed by the philosophy of not wanting to go gentle into that good night. Wracked by familial tensions from the son he never wanted whom he invites out upon hearing of his terminal condition, and confused by his new girlfriend, the plot is an unusual take on a reconciliatory drama between a man and those around him before his death.
Unusually, the reconciliation does not come easily, instead Ralph is stubborn and reluctant to see the changes in the family dynamics around him. But in his attempts to gain help in euthanasia from what is only referred to as “the Society”, Ralph slowly, emphasis on the slow, begins to understand the value of his time left on the earth and how he can use it to reconstruct broken bridges with those around him. While it may seem like a patronising contribution to the euthanasia debate, this is not entirely its intention. That Good Night tries to embed an experience of a fallen, and occasionally abhorrent, man’s redemption in the eyes of those who love him.
Kaleidoscope (2016) – Rupert Jones
Another dark and curious thriller starring the subtle, understated performance of Toby Jones. Kaleidoscope delves into the mind of a possibly psychologically unhinged loner in his attempt to reengage with a society outside of his council flat. An attempt that, in its first impressions seems almost certainly to go awry, and even downright violent. With some impressively dark cinematography and utilisation of the kaleidoscope prop, the film has a certain hypnotism to it, drawing the audience in through a calming, slow-paced repetitive sequence that wraps the entire narrative into an illusion.
Soon Aileen (Anne Reid), Carl’s (Toby Jones) estranged mother reappears in his life, after he has a psychological break in the middle of a date with Abby (Sinead Matthews) and has discovered her body in the bathroom the next morning. As it appears, a phonecall off Aileen, mixed with an inordinate amount of vodka, has triggered a reaction in Carl’s psyche, an almost immediate repulsion to some kind of Oedipal theme lurking in the film’s shadows.
Carl begins a frantic effort to clean up after his crime, but Aileen begins to pull at the threads of his efforts, put only enough for her to peak at. What follows is a series of fairly claustrophobic interactions between the two, in which the audience can almost visibly see the tendrils of her previous control vying once more for her son’s devotion. The camerawork is enclosed between small, narrow corridors and aerially pans downward through the spiraling staircases of the tower blocks. As Carl begins to lose more and more control, events become more curious and hallucinogenic, visions of Abby blur with those of Aileen and Carl’s father soon appears at his table, blood running from the top of his skull. Setting up numerous mysteries that are too tantalising to give away, the raw psychological explorations here are enough of a draw to maintain their payoffs, and in some cases their lack thereof.
Edie (2017) – Simon Hunter
After a life of duty to her husband and daughter Edie (Sheila Hancock) refuses to sit back and accept the life of meandering in a care home. Invigorated by objects of her past adventures with her father, a particular resonance radiating from postcard of Mount Suliven in Scotland, she makes the rash, and sudden choice to make her way to the mountain, determined to tackle the hiking challenge. However, here it is for an unusual reason, not to rekindle the fire of youth or relive the blazes of grandeur past, or to simply experience something she never got the chance to. Rather it is a film about her proving to herself that she has the strength to conquer a mountain, even in her late 70s/early 80s.
In a reversal of the Rambo-style training montage we see a young camping shop worker Jonny (Kevin Guthrie), batter Edie into shape, while whimsically becoming friends. As Jonny becomes her friend, we learn more about Edie’s life, wracked by tragedy and loyalty, all the while longing for something more.
The established tropes of the unexpected inspiration genre of films shine through in the first two thirds of Edie, with some witty and heartwarming moments. When Edie eventually embarks on her hike, the naturalistic elements to the imagery of the film truly takes charge, utilising impressive sweeping shots and even what appears to be drone footage to fully accentuate the scale of her task and her diminutive size in comparison to the mountain. It becomes a rather solitary film at this point, sound is merely comprised of the trudge of her determined walk, the songs of birds, the flow of the rivers, it serves as a sequence that is almost a symbolic restoration of a connection between a woman and nature, one that has been lost from years of isolation. From a spontaneous self-challenge comes a beautifully-composed pilgrimage that is less inspirational than it is truly important to the character herself.
Okja (2017) – Joon-ho Bong
Yet another triumphant return for Joon-ho Bong, whose seemingly friendly film, Okja, disguises some particularly morally ambiguous material for an audience to seek their teeth into (an undeniably bad pun for which I will not apologise). In quite a bold take on the family-friendly “a-child-and-their-pet” genre, the film’s atmosphere has, in parallel with what it is commenting on, become polluted and distorted, transformed into an insane hybrid. A film that has dark, and fairly adult language with jolting intersections of violence mixes with its genre that creates a certain disjointedness that simultanesouly retains a resonance of poignancy and legitimate commentary.
Examining our relationship with how and what we eat, Bong has created Okja, a genetically altered “superpig” that is apparently sustainable and tastes wonderful. In seeing the pre-established relationship between Mira and Okja, in a brief few minutes, portrays a rather genuine and promising relationship between animal and human, a portrait of a domesticated friendship that seems in many parts equal. In one particular sequence, Mira falls off a ledge and in Okja’s rescue attempt, the two attempt to balance their weight, working in partnership in order to make sure both are safe.
This is one small example of how the film begins to examine our relationship with animals but it expands it continuously, forcing an audience to dwell on our acquiescence to the industrialised food industry, the difference between domesticated animal and animal for food depending on cultures, and our reliance on multinational corporations to provide us with what we need to survive. Okja knows what it’s trying to say and it does so in a dark, twisted, and completely curious way that might appear strange but does just enough to satiate our curious hunger and leave us wanting more.
While this is no means a rundown of the full catalogue of what was available, which was a truly extensive catalogue to say the least, the Edinburgh International Film Festival had a veritable buzz in its atmosphere this year. Indeed, while many of the films on offer were quite low-key, there being many an offering from new directors, there is also some promising material coming from a myriad of independent sources trying to break the mould within the conventions of cinema. Even the documentaries this year had a distinctively unique perspective on their material. In the middle of a summer-cinema run littered with the likes of Despicable Me 3 and The Emoji Movie, it was nice to take a break and look at an authentically international selection of movies made by talented and passionate people.