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Still Reeling – Edinburgh’s Film Festival is no more and what a loss it is

Oh, where to start with this? Like many in the film world, especially in Edinburgh, I am still reeling from the shock of the sudden closing of the city’ wonderful Filmhouse cinema, home also to the Edinburgh International Film Festival, also shuttered. The evening before the news broke, I was booking a screening for the weekend. In fact, I am writing this piece at the time I should be sitting in screen one of the Filmhouse to watch a tribute to the late Jean-Luc Goddard, with a screening of A Bout de Souffle (Seberg in that fabulous pixie haircut, the irreplaceable Belmondo, sigh). And then I should come out of the theatre, a satisfied smile on my face, and head into the Filmhouse’s lovely cafe-bar for a post-film relax, drink, chat, food and just plain sit there and enjoy the atmosphere.

It’s not a newsflash to say cinemas have been struggling – we all know it, I’m sure most of us who read Live for Films are worried about it and trying our best to support our local cinemas, especially the independent and arthouse theatres like the Filmhouse. But the suddenness of the Centre for the Moving Image (CMI), the charitable body that runs Filmhouse, declaring itself in administration has taken all of us by surprise. Only a few weeks ago I was busy filing reports from the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) right here on this site, waving the flag for interesting new films and new movie makers. I’ve been going to that festival for thirty years – this year the film festival, the oldest continually running film fest on our planet – celebrated its 75th birthday.

And now this.

Many in the arts are struggling right now – Covid, of course, put a huge torpedo beneath the waterline of many arts organisations and venues and creators on a global scale. The final weekend before that first Lockdown, I was going home from visiting a friend, knowing it may be my last chance for a while (we had no idea just how bloody long then). I passed the Filmhouse about 11 on a Saturday night. Cinemas, theatres and bars had already closed before the Lockdown. The street was deserted save for a couple waiting at a bus stop. City centre on a Saturday evening on a street with theatres, cinemas, bars and restaurants, dead. It was a chilling omen.

As restrictions have eased, and cinemas returned, then had to close again, then re-open, and the struggle to get studios to get the big film content back out on schedules again so a reluctant, scared audience had more reason to go out to the cinemas again went on (thank you, Chris Nolan for sticking to your guns and supporting cinemas for your release of Tenet), we’ve seen audiences come back, but often not in the same numbers as pre-Covid. It’s a pattern I have seen repeated all over the arts, even here, in the arts festival capital of the world. The Fringe was busy this summer, but nowhere near old levels. It was wonderful to be back to a couple of weeks of film festival, but while I saw good audiences, few of the screenings were quite as busy as before. I’ve seen similar even at book events, from in-store, small-scale events to the big Edinburgh International Book Festival (some big crowds for certain names, but again that feeling that the same numbers are not coming back).

Kevin Smith

Between this and the huge rise in the cost of living, with the worst of the energy price rises looming, it was too much for an organisation that had already suffered through two years of hell nobody anticipated. How many businesses and venues have had the same problems?

For me, personally though, this is a wretched blow. I first encountered the Filmhouse when I moved to Edinburgh as a student in the autumn of 1991. The generous student discounts helped me go see more films, and as film was a part of my college studies, I could bunk off classes to go to the cinema and pretend it was research (any excuse). The lovely cafe-bar has long been one of my Happy Places, one of those spots where I can go when I am having a rough time, and always feel better just being there, even if I’m not going into a film. And, of course, after making it a second home for three decades, it is packed with memories for me.

I met new friends there – the former Filmhouse education officer (outreach was always an important part of their community-minded remit), Shiona, who was a guest lecturer at my college, and who became a friend (taken far too soon from us, but I still feel her presence every time I am at the FH). I felt encouraged to try films I may not otherwise have seen, at least not on the big screen (where the experience is always different). From new European and world cinema that nobody else in town was showing, to classics , from Buster Keaton to a 70mm print of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I went with friends to the film study courses during the winter night, a screening then a lecture, then, of course, a good discussion about it all in the FH bar afterwards. Again it often opened me up to film-makers I may otherwise never have encountered.

And then there’s the film festival, headquartered in the FH’s 19th century building. The buzz in the FH cafe-bar at 1am, coming out of a late night festival screening was something else, often some of the film-makers would be hanging around happily chatting to people over a drink, nobody wanting to go home, all on a festival high. At a festival retrospective on the works of Powell and Pressburger, I took a dear friend to see A Matter of Life and Death, which she had never seen. Just before the film, the festival announcer produced a surprise: a very frail, elderly man walked slowly onto the stage; it was Jack Cardiff, Powell and Pressburger’s now legendary cinematographer.

Dominique Pinon

He told us of being given his break by them, of working on those movies – surely some of the most beautiful British films ever made – and I swear this very old man grew straighter and younger as he talked to us of those days of post-war British film-making. Remarkable experiences like that happened at the EIFF. Ray Harryhausen chatting to an audience, Dame Evelyn Glennie coming out after a documentary about her, to entertain the audience with a solo music performance using only a single snare drum, French actor Dominique Pinon in conversation, Karen Gillan using her post Doctor Who fame to help get her own Indy film made and then screened at the festival.

New talent like Gareth Edwards standing on stage with his actors at one in the morning after screening Monsters, long before Lucasfilms would tag him to direct Rogue One, young animators at the McClaren Animation strand, quite a few of whom would go on to BAFTA and Oscar glory later with the films they showed us and talked to us about afterwards. Sir Sean Connery, a long-time supporter of the festival, waving from the red carpet at the opening gala, at a venue that was just a few moment’s walk from the streets where he delivered milk as a boy, before global stardom (often wondered what went through his head when he was back in that old neighbourhood). Kevin Smith running well past his allotted speaking time after a late-night screening, and nobody cared because we were all sitting there with Kevin Smith. One year I even got invited into the projection booth and met Sid and Kenneth, the venerable cine-projectors (FH being one of the few places still with trained projectionists and the ability to show actual celluloid); the magic lanterns behind the curtain.

Cast and Crew of Monsters

The people who worked at the Filmhouse and the Festival weren’t just working there -like many of us who work in arts-related fields, they were there for the love of it all. Most were well-educated and could find much better-paying jobs, but this was a special place, warm, welcoming, inclusive, and the shared love of the medium shone through it all. Being made redundant is hard enough, as I’m sad to say I know too well; the shock, the up-turning of your regular existence, the awful worries about loss of income and how you can afford to live, how hard it may be to get another job. And if it is somewhere like this, that is compounded by the sudden loss of your surrogate family, a place where you didn’t just work, you liked being there, you liked what you did, you cared about the medium, about the people , the audiences, who came to share in it. All suddenly taken from over a hundred staff, just like that.

I really don’t know what the answers are here – we’ve lost a number of arts venue in the last couple of hard years, and I think we all fear losing more. These places enrich our lives, our culture – Filmhouse and the EIFF have been a vital part of my city’s cultural life, their demise is noted on the global scale, with even Variety and Hollywood Reporter lamenting on the sudden closure. And how many other venues are wobbling right now, how many may be finished off by the surge in prices this coming winter? I wish I had a Great Idea to fix it all, but I don’t. All I can say is when you have places like the Filmhouse or events like the film festival, cherish them and support them as much as you can; just like supporting your local, indie, neighbourhood shops, if we don’t, we lose them, like we lost the Filmhouse, and we have damned well lost enough these last couple of years.

There is a public outcry for something to be done to save both the Filmhouse and EIFF; I don’t know if they will be saved, or if they are, in what form. Fair to say the entire arts community here is still in shock at it all, and there’s no indication yet of what, if any, help may be available, we can only hope. Meantime an online petition has been started asking to save both the Filmhouse and the EIFF; fellow movie lovers sharing the link and signing it would be very much appreciated.

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