Going to a film festival always starts with the same thing: the program. Somewhere out of the dozens of blurbs and highlights, you’ve got to make a choice. It can be a fraught process, particularly when your time is limited and the goal is to whittle down over 130 titles to one. Do you play it safe and follow the names you recognize, the big-ticket options that are likely to get a theatrical release somewhere down the line anyway? Or do you strike out into the great unknown, and risk your precious dollars (or pounds) on a promising but unreliable option?
The program for the Edinburgh International Film Festival (the oldest continually running festival in the world) is not particularly helpful. Flashy neon colors direct your eye here, there, everywhere at once. Category titles for each title specify which sidebar the film falls under, but broad divisions like “New Realities,” “Michael Powell Award Competition” and “World Perspectives” aren’t particularly useful. Not to mention the distractingly indecipherable, Dziga Vertov-esque logo for this year’s fest, plastered all over the place like some sort of Big Brother subliminal messaging system. The best you can do is just pick through the madness and scribble down a few titles that interest you for further consideration.
Eventually Elaine and I settled on two films for consideration: “Breathe In,” Drake Doremus’ follow-up to “Like Crazy” (starring, wouldn’t you know it, Felicity Jones as a British foreign exchange student!) or “Stories We Tell,” Sarah Polley’s already-acclaimed documentary. “Breathe In” was especially tempting considering it was the opening night gala selection, yet tickets were still a mere £15 a pop (the Edinburgh festival is nothing if not affordable, with most films costing a mere £5). That seemed an incredibly reasonable price to pay for the European debut by a major up-and-coming indie director, doubly so since Doremus and Jones were likely to be present. Unfortunately, our need to commute back to St. Andrew’s in the evening (a two-hour bus ride) meant that the late screening time for “Breathe In” made it off limits. So off to Canada it was. I remained very excited by our choice, even if Polley’s film was a bit old hat on the festival circuit by now (it debuted back in Toronto last September), as the timing of my visit to Scotland meant that I would’ve missed the film’s U.S. theatrical release, and “Stories We Tell” was high on my list of must-see titles for the year. Non-fiction film has occupied a special niche in my heart since taking a course at Amherst on the subject with one of my favorite professors, and Polley’s film seemed a challenging, genre-bending exercise.
On the day of, Elaine and I made our way to Edinburgh (weaving through the rolling green back-country of Fife, reminding me of Thomas Lamarre’s theories on the link between cinema and train travel, even if we were on a bus), arriving in the early afternoon. I was struck immediately as we began walking around town at how little the city was affected by the ongoing festival: whereas in Cleveland, site of the only other international festival I’ve attended to this point, advertising and some increased traffic definitively announces the CIFF’s start, Edinburgh seemed essentially unchanged from my previous visit a few weeks earlier. No signs, no fanfare, no great change to the pace of the city’s life. Clearly the EIFF is merely a warm-up for the far greater frenzy of the Fringe Festival and Royal Military Tattoo in August.
After idling away some time in the National Museum of Scotland (mostly spent pondering the conundrum of Scotland having a “national museum” despite being merely one part of the nation of Great Britain), we decided to seek out our venue for the evening, not being overly familiar with the city layout. Wandering out of the picturesque, staid streets of Old Town, we were rather surprised to find ourselves suddenly walking through what seemed to be the Edinburgh projects: empty lots and heavy construction abounded as we hesitantly continued to follow directions, growing a little less confident that I had written down the correct theater. But before long we did indeed arrive at our destination: not the kind of classy, old theater that you might expect from one of the world’s oldest festivals, but a fairly traditional multiplex in the middle of a large shopping plaza. Out of a general lack of options we had dinner had a hipstery pub across the street that thought its middling fish and chips was worth £12.
All of this, however, was just like stripping the varnish off a perfectly lovely wood floor: perhaps some of the romanticism was gone, but the product is really the same, and it just gave us the opportunity to apply a new layer anyway. The theater might not have dated to vaudeville or anything, but really it was a perfectly lovely space: it was clean, had comfortable seating, and there was a solid bar setup upstairs from the lobby (Europe really is so much more civilized).
And really, if the festival experience always starts with the program, it reliably ends with the film itself. I’ll have a full review up sometime soon with many more thoughts, but “Stories We Tell” is exactly the kind of daring, untraditional, thought-provoking work that you’re not likely to find coming out of the Hollywood machine. Our whole bus ride back to St. Andrew’s (and the 30-minute jog to the bus station from the theater before it), Elaine and I could think of nothing but this movie. We were floored by its emotional candor and unexpected approach to its material. And in the end, that is the greatest part of going to a film festival: to see those choices you made validated; to experience some fantastic little piece of cinema that otherwise might’ve completely blown past you. You take a risk looking at that program, and sometimes it pays off in spectacular fashion.