Edinburgh Film Festival Heads On Last Year’s “Heartbreaking” Closure, How They Saved The Event & Plans For Future Editions

Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) head Kate Taylor has put together what she describes as an “eclectic and lively” mix of titles for her first year at the helm.

Running Aug 18-23, this year’s edition is also Edinburgh’s return after effectively shutting down at the tale end of last year when the Centre for the Moving Image (CMI), the charity that owned the fest, appointed administrators. EIFF ceased trading alongside two revered local arthouse cinemas owned by the CMI: Edinburgh Filmhouse and Belmont Filmhouse in Aberdeen.

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In December, Screen Scotland, a national funding body, announced that it had acquired intellectual rights to the festival. Shortly after, former head Kristy Matheson departed for the top job at London Film Festival, and Taylor took the reigns. Screen Scotland has since hired Trainspotting producer Andrew Macdonald to create and chair a new governing board to deliver and steer the festival alongside Taylor moving forward. With the organization still on the mend, this year EIFF is a scaled-down, “special one-year iteration” hosted as part of the Edinburgh International Festival, a wider cultural event in the Scottish capital.

“We don’t want it to be an interim year. It’s going to be its own special thing,” Taylor tells Deadline of her plans for this year. “But it’s going to be quite different in form to how it’s been in recent years.”

Christian Petzold’s Afire and Celine Song’s Past Lives are among the titles set to screen at the fest. The full lineup includes 24 feature films, five retrospective titles, and a five pic short film program. Five feature films will be presented as World Premieres, including the opening film Silent Roar. The festival closes with British Iranian filmmaker Babak Jalali’s well-received Sundance pic Fremont. While the festival program is smaller than in previous years, it still carries a lot of heft with a large presence of arthouse work and projects by artist-filmmakers such as Ungentle, a 37-minute gallery piece by Huw Lemmey and Onyeka Igwe.

Below, Taylor and Tamara Van Strijthem, EIFF executive producer, talk to Deadline about what happened following last year’s closure, how they revived the festival, and their plans for future editions. The pair also discuss their decision to lean into programming trickier arthouse work, with Taylor telling Deadline that EIFF holds a new responsibility to champion such work following the closure of Edinburgh Filmhouse.

DEADLINE: Let’s begin by taking it back to late last year. Edinburgh had shuttered alongside both Filmhouse locations. At the time, the festival put out a statement saying that then Artistic Director Kristy Matheson and her team were working on bringing the festival back. What happened during this time?

KATE TAYLOR: Last year’s festival had a lot of changes to it. It shifted back into the August position from being in June for a while. Kristy Matheson had come over to be Artistic Director. There were a few changes to the program. There was a recommitment to internationalism. We changed how we communicated the program to audiences by encouraging people to take risks on films they didn’t know. It was a program that was full of new talent. There were lots of first and second-time features. It was a bold program, very sex-positive, with lots of LGBTQ work. We got good feedback from the audience and the industry who attended, and it was like, great, Edinburgh is back. So we were ready to take that forward and get cracking on this year’s edition. So it was a huge shock to the system in October when the parent charity, the Centre for Moving Image, went into administration without giving staff any heads up. It was sudden and heartbreaking for people who worked for the festival and also for filmmakers, audience members, and industry people who’ve had a big association with Edinburgh. We felt a responsibility to do everything we could to try and get back on our feet.

We spent a lot of time working out a lot of the nitty gritty. We needed partnerships, and the Edinburgh International Festival stepped in quite quickly. They’re the same age as the film festival, which started in 1947. They said, ‘Don’t skip a year because it’ll be really hard to come back if you take a year out.’ So it meant we had a very short time to think about how to rebuild from scratch.

DEADLINE: Who are you working with now? Who is on your team, and what is Edinburgh’s organizational structure?

TAYLOR: The host organization is the Edinburgh International Festival. They’re supporting us with all of the ticketing infrastructure, finance, HR, and logistics. And then we’re a small team of 15. We also have three freelance short film programmers. And then, I worked on the feature film program with Anna Bogutskaya and Rafa Sales Ross.

DEADLINE: Is the Edinburgh International Film Festival now your main funder?

TAMARA VAN STRIJTHEM: They’re hosting us. Screen Scotland is still the main funder. The role they’ve played in enabling Edinburgh Film Festival to happen cannot be overstated. They’ve really gone out of their way to make sure that EIFF would continue.

DEADLINE: How would you describe this year’s lineup?

TAYLOR: It’s eclectic, lively, and a cracking mix of UK talent with international features. It’s almost half debuts. We’re excited by the new talent that we’re presenting. We knew it was going to be impossible to do a massive survey of contemporary cinema with 24 new films. So instead, we’ve given a slice of filmmakers that we think have really strong perspectives and are saying something about where cinema is and could be going. I hope it’s a program that encourages more questions than answers.

DEADLINE: The lineup features a lot of arthouse work. And Kate, when we met at the EIFF launch, I got the sense that you were happy to lean into that. Is that your goal? To make EIFF an arthouse festival?

TAYLOR: There are two things I can say about that: Firstly, this year, we have a different responsibility than a festival would usually have in that we’re very aware of how low the provision for arthouse cinema is in this city. It’s tough for film lovers in Edinburgh to get a variety of films right now. Edinburgh Film Festival does have a history of showing arthouse cinema and seeking out the overlooked, so there’s an element of correction here. There’s also an element of who’s going to stop us. So, for example, Ungentle, the Huw Lemmey and Onyeka Igwe film is 37 minutes. We saw that film in Berwick. It played in London in a gallery context. To some festivals, 37 minutes is quite difficult to place. But Ungentle is one of the best UK films we’ve seen of any length. So the ability to show that as a feature as part of our core program of new UK talent, we thought, why not?

DEADLINE: Is there a wide appetite for that type of work in Edinburgh? I remember seeing Edinburgh-based filmmaker Mark Cousins talking about how his latest Alfred Hitchcock documentary wasn’t programmed in the city last month while Barbie and Oppenheimer took all the screens.  

VAN STRIJTHEM: There is a question there about who feeds the appetite. It’s always the case with demand and supply, whatever you’re looking at, and cinema is not that dissimilar. The issue for Edinburgh, specifically, and where it differs from other cities, is that it had a space where these films would have been given a place to screen. That place has been shut down, and nothing has come to replace it currently. So there’s a bigger question about cinemas in the UK.

DEADLINE: What’s the long-term goal for the festival?

VAN STRIJTHEM: Our team’s priority is to deliver this year’s festival and to make it a festival to remember, and as Kate mentioned earlier, to ensure that it is appreciated in its own right. That is an absolute priority. Also, just on a practical basis, Edinburgh International Film Festival currently has a home within Edinburgh International Festival. But its life beyond that will be decided by people who aren’t part of our team. A new festival chair will be appointed by Screen Scotland, who will lead the creation of a new company. So the wheels are in motion for that longer-term vision to be established. We very much look forward to working with the people who are going to be leading on that.

TAYLOR: Every festival is in a constant state of metamorphosis. This year is going to be a beautiful form, and next year and I’m sure, will be very different.

DEADLINE: Will you keep the festival in August?

TAYLOR: Yeah, for sure. Edinburgh in August is such a unique experience. It’s one of those rare occasions where you can get off the train and immediately know that festivals are happening. It’s so prevalent in the air and on the street. There’s so much activity, and that’s a huge opportunity for us to put cinema in that conversation with the other art forms.

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