A People's Festival

07/24/2008 06:32 pm ET | Updated Jan 14, 2012

A festival of discovery in the the Reykjavik of the South every Summer? When you hear that, what is your immediate reaction? Mine is as follows: what a nice change from sporting the 'all dressed up and nowhere to go' look, eating non-vegetarian haggis and walking aimlessly on Princes Street under the June sun. I speak for myself of course. The proposal for Edinburgh's annual film event to be viewed as a discovery machine came from its artistic director, Hannah McGill.

Anybody mildly interested in the arts in this country will tell you that Edinburgh is the king city of festivals. Its August programme dominates the galaxy of festival-making. The Scottish capital has given birth to a number of international festivals (books, Fringe, the International festival, jazz, art, TV). Several of them have traditionally taken place every year in August since the late 40s. Until this year, the Film Festival was no exception. During the festival season, central parts of Edinburgh are not dissimilar to Oxford Street before Christmas in terms of population. Even the most unimaginative show gets an audience. It is hardly surprising that the film festival had depended on the August audiences to attend its screenings. Contemporary British cinema is the highlight of this event. And of course the celebration of Scottish filmmaking talent. Discovering fresh, intelligent British filmmakers continues to be the festival's raison d'etre. It has succeeded again beautifully this year in realising that aim. But ever since Hannah McGill announced last year that her festival would be held in June from 2008 instead of sharing the stage with the other August festivities, the news was received with mixed reaction. It brought discomfort to a few in the cultural world. Some pronounced it a big mistake as they feared, mostly, a lack of proper audience while others were ecstatic. They were joyful to have been given the opportunity to embrace the festival at a time of the year which gave them freedom time-wise to experience it in its entirety. The majority of people I meet during the August festival season always complain they find it impossible to enjoy each festival programme to their heart's content because of the frighteningly overwhelming number of events that go on in August. Exhausting and unbalancing. And besides, nothing major on the cultural scene happens in Edinburgh the rest of the year.

Two English women, both under the age of twenty eight, brought oxygen of publicity and Hollywood glamour to the opening ceremony of the 62nd Edinburgh International Film Festival. Without Keira Knightley and Sienna Miller's presence, I very much doubt the festival opening would have proven to be anything more than a rather average event arousing not a huge amount of interest or curiosity. Last month, Cannes welcomed Madonna, Sharon Stone, Angelina Jolie and Clint Eastwood, among many others. Guests at the Berlinale earlier this year included Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman and Penelope Cruz. Big festivals, big names, big budget films and massive media exposure. Edinburgh's annual film celebration has never been one to solely rely on A-list stars' attendance. It is not a celeb circus. There really hasn't been any considerable buzz in the city prior to the festival. On the whole, it feels like a low-key, muted affair but important nonetheless. Tilda Swinton likes to call it a filmmaker's festival. I prefer to call it a people's festival. In my opinion, it truly is created for the public to be entertained. But today's public has become increasingly shallow. So it can be tricky to pull in the punters. Most young people in England, and Scotland for that matter, would rather watch Big Brother instead of Poliakoff on TV and passionately discuss the 'Grazia' and 'Daily Mail' life of Tilda Swinton than her towering acting abilities.

So, how do you market a film festival such as the one in Edinburgh and attract diverse audiences, especially the younger crowd? Most people I saw going to the festival last week were in their 40s and above. I am not complaining. Given that all the international festivals above have featured some of the biggest names in the English speaking film world, it was only fair that one of Britain's leading celebrations of motion pictures, which I believe is also the longest continually running film festival in the world, was blessed with a couple of international star attractions; and therefore guaranteeing a glitzy ceremony. A boon for which the festival team would surely be grateful even though they say star premieres is not central to their programme. The aforementioned English couple were in the Scottish capital for the world premiere of their much-hyped film 'The Edge of Love' about the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. They were accompanied by the film's director John Maybury and screenwriter Sharman Macdonald. Luck has been on Edinburgh's side. Maybury's film was meant to be shown at Cannes. At least, that was the desire of the producers but sadly, or fortunately for Edinburgh, Cannes rejected it for all the three categories it was submitted. However, Maybury was ''honoured and chuffed to bits' to have been able to screen it at Edinburgh calling Cannes ''a hideous trade fair''.

Last Thursday afternoon, a tall man was only inches away from me on a street outside the Filmhouse cinema. He looked distinguished , handsome, and elderly. Nobody seemed to notice him much. Sean Connery was greeted with a large smile on the steps of the Filmhouse and then ushered in by Ms McGill. No bodyguards, no dramas. He appeared very relaxed wearing a regular piece of clothing. After all, he is the father of this jamboree. Last year he commented "Changing the dates of the film festival will create space for a modern, forward-thinking event that offers higher status and an individual identity to film culture." I hope he is right.