Edinburgh fest gets its groove back

Auds applaud new topper, Fujiwara, who reups for three years

EDINBURGH — After the nadir of its 2011 edition, the 66th Edinburgh Film Festival opened on a tide of goodwill and closed on a flood of praise that bodes well for its long-term prospects under new artistic director Chris Fujiwara.

Critics and cinephiles flocked to Twitter and Facebook to laud Fujiwara for delivering a rich and satisfying program packed with unfamiliar names, which restored the fest’s reputation as a destination for film lovers eager to make fresh discoveries in world cinema.

Just a few days after the fest, which bootsted ticket sales to more than 40,000 — an 18% gain — Fujiwara committed to another three years at the helm.

The 2012 edition marked a significant comeback, not just from last year’s botched experiment with no artistic director, but from several years of decline when the aging fest struggled to renew itself, both before and after its controversial shift from August to June in 2008.

“After a year that was reputed to be bad, we were worried that distributors and sales agents would be a bit leery of working with us, but we were able to attract quite a good program,” Fujiwara says.

His own eloquent advocacy was the key to winning back the support of distribs who withheld their best titles last year because of a perceived lack of passion or knowledge from Fujiwara’s predecessor, James Mullighan, appointed as fest producer rather than artistic director.

After a slow start for some screenings, exacerbated by bad Scottish weather, attendance visibly swelled along with the buzz in Edinburgh’s Filmhouse bar, as the fest progressed and word spread about the exceptionally consistent quality of Fujiwara’s taste and selections.

One highlight was the retrospective of Shinji Somai, whose teen-oriented movies from the 1980s and ’90s are hugely influential within Japan but barely known elsewhere. According to one festgoer who attended most of the 13 screenings, the audience tripled in size from the beginning of the retrospective to the end.

A section devoted to the Philippine New Wave was a surprise hit. Fujiwara notes proudly that Laz Diaz’s six-hour “Florentina Hubaldo” drew a larger audience in Edinburgh than its world premiere in Rotterdam, and prompted fewer walkouts.

Jim Hickey, a former artistic director of the festival, summed up the general mood when he posted on Facebook: “Haven’t met anyone yet who isn’t enjoying this year’s EIFF. It’s turning out to be a great year … those who have loved Edinburgh over the years sense they are getting their film festival back.”

It’s a sign of Fujiwara’s success in unearthing genuinely fresh voices that the fest’s big prizes went to two world premieres. “Here, Then,” by Mao Mao, a young Chinese director, was chosen as best international feature by a jury headed by Elliott Gould. The British jury, headed by Jim Broadbent, picked Penny Woolcock’s doc about rival urban gangs, “One Mile Away,” as top British feature.

“To hear directly from Elliott and Jim how much they appreciated the program we provided for them was a real highlight for me,” Fujiwara says.

Among the best received pics by auds and critics were “Tabu” by Portugal’s Miguel Gomes; U.S. helmer Dan Salitt’s “The Unspeakable Act”; the Iranian duo of Mania Akbari’s “One, Two, One” and Mani Haghighi’s “Modest Reception”; Jon Wright’s Irish comedy-horror “Grabbers”; Swedish comedy “Flicker” by Patrik Eklund; Bart Layton’s doc “The Imposter”; Jang Kun-jae’s “Sleepless Night” from Korea, which won the student critics prize; and Argentine doc “Papirosen” by Gaston Solnicki, which got a special mention from the international jury.

In the past, Edinburgh’s selection of British films has been notorious as a showcase of everything that’s worst about cheap British cinema. But this year’s lineup drew an unusually positive critical response, including raves for world premiere titles such as Peter Strickland’s “Berberian Sound Studio,” Maya Borg’s doc “Future My Love” and Mark Cousins’ “What Is This Film Called Love?”

Andrea Riseborough and Brid Brennan shared the prize for best British performance, in James Marsh’s thriller “Shadow Dancer.”