Cannes has its red carpet and paparazzi, Venice its speedboats and high couture, Sundance its ski-wear and deal-making. The Edinburgh International Film Festival, by contrast, offers a nobility of spirit, embodied in the austere drama of the city’s neoclassical architecture. “It was never as glitzy as them,” says the festival’s former director and now prolific documentary-maker Mark Cousins, “but often more innovative and searching.”
Edinburgh is part of the ancient elite of film festivals; it’s not the oldest, but it has run continuously from 1947, even if the coronavirus forced the 2020 edition online. It proudly emblazons much of its promotional material with the very John Huston–esque (but possibly apocryphal) quote that the maestro is said to have uttered on bringing his washed-up-pug picture Fat City to the festival in 1972: it’s the only film festival “worth a damn.”
And yet it very nearly didn’t make it to 2023. Last October, the Centre for the Moving Image (C.M.I.), the charity that operated the festival, became insolvent, bringing down the city’s celebrated Filmhouse cinema as well as the festival. Originally a 19th-century church and still with its expensive projection equipment inside, the Filmhouse has since been bought by a pub operator; a campaign is underway to ensure the venue remains a cinema. Scotland’s government-funded film agency had to extract the film-festival trademark from the C.M.I.’s administrators, and the (far larger) Edinburgh International Festival—the organization that mounts large-scale music and theater performances every summer—stepped in to provide vital administrative and legal services.
So what can we expect this summer? Having been consigned to a lonely existence in June (as part of a strategic plan for the British film industry that was formulated a decade and a half ago), the film festival is now nestling in August, back among Edinburgh’s other globally famous festivals: books, fringe theater, television, art. It has always done its best to promote Scottish cinema, and this year handed its high-profile opening slot to Silent Roar, a film that describes itself as “a fun ride into surfing, death and the cosmos” and was shot in the wild and beautiful landscape of the remote Hebridean community of Uig, on the Isle of Lewis.
And while you can’t have a Trainspotting every year, its famously potty-mouthed author, Irvine Welsh, is offering his life and thoughts in a documentary called, with characteristic modesty, Choose Irvine Welsh. The new Ira Sachs love-triangle drama, Passages, will get a showing, while the festival’s vintage picks include Variety, the 1983 indie film about a writer who gets a job at a porn cinema; it boasts an amazing array of downtown talent in various capacities, including Kathy Acker (who wrote the screenplay), John Lurie, Nan Goldin, and Spalding Gray. Its director, Bette Gordon, is currently a professor at Columbia University.
In the 18th century, the Scottish Enlightenment led the world in new thinking through intellectual giants such as the philosopher David Hume, the economist Adam (The Wealth of Nations) Smith, and the architect Robert Adam. Cousins even suggests that “the fact that Edinburgh was one of the major cities of the Enlightenment seems to have fueled the film festival.” Whether its new incarnation can carry the torch remains to be seen, but we’d be all the poorer if it had disappeared for good.
The Edinburgh International Film Festival is on from August 18 to 23
Andrew Pulver writes about film for The Guardian and about art for The Art Newspaper. He lives in Oxford