With public health laws, travel regulations and COVID variants rapidly changing every day, putting together this year’s Edinburgh Intl. Film Festival has been no easy task. But with 2020’s edition of the festival having been cancelled due to the pandemic, the team behind the EIFF were determined to forge ahead despite lacking a creative director (incoming creative director Kristy Matheson starts next month) and without even knowing whether, when push came to shove, the event would be able to go ahead.
Fortunately, the (celestial, if not Hollywood) stars aligned and the EIFF has opened this week to a hungry and responsive audience, with movie-goers enjoying the opening night gala screening of Nicolas Cage-starring “Pig” and passers-by whiling away the hours in deck chairs at St. Andrew Square, where a giant screen has been erected for “Film Fest in the City” with a host of classic films screening in the open air.
Variety caught up with EIFF chief executive Ken Hay to discuss the challenges and relief of bringing this year’s festival to life.
What has the experience of putting on a film festival during a pandemic been like for you?
I think the last 18 months for everyone has been a bit of a nightmare in many ways. And obviously, for individual organizations, a lot of the focus has been on basic survival, and just making sure that we’re around to come out the other side and be able to accelerate into a post pandemic world.
We didn’t have our 74th edition last year, we did a number of festival-related programs and [digital] events and we hosted some drive-in movie events as well to try and give audiences something to do. Because last year, obviously, was really difficult. I don’t think any of us expected it – the impact of COVID – to last quite as long as it has done.
And so when we’re looking at 2021, it was a case of “How can we stage something that isn’t trying to replicate something from the past or put in programs that are being fixed for the future?” because we obviously want to ensure that Kristy [Matheson] has got a sufficient blank slate to work with for the future. And so what we’ve done this year is very much focus on that celebration of film, and the convening power of cinema. And one of the things I think we’ve all missed over the last 18 months is the things that make us human, which is that social side of things. So the ability to meet people and to speak to people and to discuss things, but also the communal cultural experience – and obviously, I think cinema is the best of the communal cultural experiences.
With viewer habits having changed over the pandemic and streamers becoming ever more dominant, what do you think is the future of cinema?
If anyone’s got a direct answer to that one, well done. I think what cinema and festivals within that provide is that communal experience, and that’s one of the things that we’ve been reminded of. We’ve all had access to endless streaming platforms over the last 18 months, and we’ve guzzled on what’s been there, and we will probably continue to do so to a greater or lesser extent into the future. But the thing that we’ve missed is the convening power of both a venue and of a festival and indeed a film, to bring us together and to have the stories shared with us, and to be able to share the experience of those stories in that communal space.
And I think where we’re looking at for the future of cinema, the future of festivals, is we’re in the middle of a major change. None of us really knows where it’s going to end up in two, five, 10 years’ time. But that bit of what makes cinema special will remain [regardless], and it’s how we work with the streaming platforms, with the studios, with the distributors, with the sales agents, with the filmmakers, but crucially, with the audiences, and understanding what that might look like.
What are you most looking forward to at this year’s EIFF?
Oh, that’s a “Who’s your favorite child?” . I think the one I’m most looking forward to actually is “Prince of Muck,” which is a Scottish/Dutch co-production documentary, following the elderly patriarch Lawrence MacEwen on the Hebridean island of Muck. And it’s a fascinating story and a fascinating film in its own right, but we’re also doing a simultaneous screening of the film across Scotland, so across cinema venues across Scotland. And it’s almost the communal cinema experience of Scotland, of the Scottish audience coming together as well as doing specific activity on the island of Muck as well as in Edinburgh at the same time.
We’re using the power of film to tell a fantastic story and bringing people together, but we’re also using the power of digital technology to enable people to see and participate in an event that would normally have been a one-off event in Edinburgh, and you would have had to be in Edinburgh to experience it, and now we’re making it available to everyone. So that’s one I’m really looking forward to. Partly also because it provides a template, I hope, for future festivals – where more of the festival program can be made available in cinemas to a wider audience – as well.
This interview has been edited and condensed.