Firing the canon

The Edinburgh Film Festival has a reputation to recover - for originality, innovation and a taste for the maverick sensibility. This year it celebrates its 50th anniversary, under a new director. Lizzie Francke previews events and considers the festival's past, present and future
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The Independent Culture
"The only film festival that's worth a damn," said John Huston of the Edinburgh Film Festival, which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary and as such is the oldest continually running film festival in the world. Since its inception, when it was inaugurated as part of the movement to give cinema the kind of cultural credibility enjoyed by art or literature, it has always been regarded with particular affection by directors and producers. Over the years many a career has been launched or resuscitated on the Lothian road. In particular, during the 1960s and 1970s when cinema was buoyed up by numerous new waves, the Edinburgh Film Festival acted like a breaker. The work of the then young Martin Scorsese and Bernardo Bertolucci received their first retrospectives, while a film such as Easy Rider - which the distributors at the time who saw it as a drop-out drug fest were too scared to touch - was given a gala premiere and attracted the kind of newspaper and audience attention that prompted its wider release. It was also at Edinburgh that the films of such mavericks as Sam Fuller and Roger Corman were first up-graded out of "B" movie obscurity and deemed worth of serious attention. As such the festival helped to redefine the cinema canon with its spin-off publications and heated debates.

Under the directorship of Mark Cousins, who took over last year and brought a new impetus to the festival (as well as sponsorship) just at the point when it seemed to have lost its way, Edinburgh once again becomes a place for exuberant discussion with a programme that trawls cinema's past, as well as picking over the present. Raiding the archives for the anniversary celebrations there is a retrospective focus on the history of the documentary - with such seminal films as Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North and John Grierson's Night Mail featured along with rarely screened work by Kieslowski. There is a section devoted to the films produced in 1947, the founding year, which provides a revealing probe of a particular historical moment's psyche. Gathering together Charles Vidor's Gilda, Orson Welles's The Lady from Shanghai, Ozu's Record of a Tenement Gentleman and Roberto Rossellini's Germany Year Zero among others, one can infer the schizophrenia of the highly charged post-war days. Highlights here include a "scene by scene" masterclass from cinematographer Henri Alekan, who was behind the incandescent look of Cocteau's sublime La Belle et la Bete, while his British counterpart Jack Cardiff will be on hand to discuss his work with Technicolor on Powell and Pressburger's extraordinary, erotic Black Narcissus.

Meanwhile, one wonders what cineastes might make of the festival's crop of contemporary films in 50 years' time. The number of titles has swelled to 300 this year, with the festival spilling over into Glasgow. But even with such expansion it is the kind of event that has retained some sense of intimacy so that that small films don't feel swallowed up. There are the big guns, with Peter Greenaway's The Pillow Book, a stunning exploration of the word and the flesh (Greenaway will also be doing a "scene by scene"); John Sayles's Lone Star, a shrewdly observed thriller set in a Texas border town, and Patrice Leconte's Ridicule, an acerbic cautionary tale set in Revolutionary France. Meanwhile, Lars Von Trier's breath- taking tale of passion and sacrifice, Breaking the Waves, sweeps the director into the top league along with Emily Watson, who gives the most astounding central performance. But in keeping with Edinburgh's commitment to new voices, it is the small films that are equally the festival finds. For starters, this year one should check out Andrew Kotting's enthralling Gallivant, a picaresque series of postcards from the edge of Berlin which is eccentric and moving by turn. Shane Meadows's low-budget comedy Small Time and Curtis Radclyffe's sinister thriller Sweet Angel Mine should also confirm them as names to watch. Meanwhile, over the next two weeks, who knows what else will rise to the surface?

n The Edinburgh Film Festival runs from 11 to 25 Aug. Information hotline: 0131-229 2550