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Interview: Chris Fujiwara and Hannah McGill on the EIFF

Current artistic director of Edinburgh International Film Festival interviewed by a former one

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Interview: Chris Fujiwara and Hannah McGill on the EIFF

Hannah McGill and Chris Fujiwara. Photo: Jannica Honey

Hannah McGill used to be artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Chris Fujiwara is the man who’s got the job now. The two sit down to discuss the challenges of the world’s oldest continually running film festival.

It’s a bit like hanging out with an ex-boyfriend’s wife, talking to someone who’s got your old job. There’s relief (there but for the grace of God …) There’s envy (someone else is getting all the good stuff!). There’s an oddly intimate sort of fellow-feeling (they’re also getting all the bad stuff). And of course, there’s the sense you’re probably the last person on earth they want to have hanging around judging them … Not that Chris Fujiwara seems like a man who minds being judged. He exudes a quiet confidence that bodes well for a role that can fling countless conflicting demands at its incumbent.

Though I left the artistic directorship of the Edinburgh International Film Festival after the 2010 event, and 2012 is Fujiwara’s first year in the post, he’s still my direct replacement, since the 2011 festival operated without an artistic director. The festival is always a team effort, of course; but the lack of a prominent central curator was felt last year.

The choice of Fujiwara, a serious scholar with an international reputation, was a statement in favour of a cinephile festival, which pleased those who felt the brand had been diluted by confused messaging and too much pandering to commerce. But of course, commercial pressures don’t go away. That balance - bringing in punters and aiding the industry, while retaining daring and intellectual integrity - is perhaps the biggest challenge an EIFF director faces, and I was interested to get Fujiwara’s take on it.

Programme launch is two days away when we meet, and he is in the midst of the Sisyphean task of writing catalogue copy. ‘You’ve been through everything that I’m going through,’ he acknowledges. ‘I’m not looking for sympathy …’

Well, he can have some, of course - but the writing must be the easy part for a career critic who started penning his own film reviews in childhood. What prompted his interest in programming? He says that in travelling to international film festivals - first from Boston where he wrote for the Boston Phoenix, and then from Japan, where he moved in 2006 - he became intrigued by the possibilities. ‘Somebody who programmes a festival such as Edinburgh can make a statement about what contemporary cinema is,’ he says. ‘It’s not a purely objective statement - it’s coloured by one’s interests, knowledge, taste, values, as well as the practical matters of what’s available. But I became interested in programming as a way of asking questions about cinema - as an educational enterprise.’

But can that educational function be tricky in an age when people forge their own cultural agendas and regard expertise with a degree of suspicion? ‘Yes - and I’m opposed to the role of the expert! I don’t think it’s helpful. I would hate for what I do to be looked at that way. But I’m aware also that we’re not programming at random. There’s a curatorial function that I’m fulfilling.’

Choosing his words with great care, Fujiwara defines that role in attractively simple terms. ‘What I’m trying to do is to make a large amount of cinema available that I and other people think is interesting. Let’s have a conversation. I hope the festival is a dialogue involving audience, filmmakers, critics and those of us who programme the festival. It should be a dialogue of equals, as far as possible. I’m hoping to dismantle hierarchies, to some extent.’

His programme is massively wide-ranging (and just massive - more than twice as many new films as last year), taking in over 50 countries, with a particular strength in the East Asian cinema in which he is expert, whether he likes the term or not. While big films and big names feature, it’s a programme generally light on star vehicles and studio product. We talk about the weight of expectation upon the EIFF to be all things to all people: industry, audience, filmmakers and celeb-hungry press alike. ‘It’s an awkward position,’ he says, but believes awkwardness can be productive. ‘I may be very idealistic about this, but I think it’s good to have multiple interests that one is trying to serve. It’s good not to be purist.’

He’s also conscious of the nostalgia element that drives some to lament the EIFF’s 1970s status as a trend-driving intellectual powerhouse - and smart enough to understand that a lot has changed since the 1970s. ‘At that time there weren’t so many film festivals as there are now, and so a festival like Edinburgh had the chance to become truly influential,’ he says. ‘It may be impossible for a festival to play that role now. It can go toward that, but it can’t be the same thing.’

Another critical element is presentation: how to entice crowds into films of which they know little to nothing. ‘Of course I hope that the audience will come. I’ll do my best to encourage them! But for me it’s quite new. I don’t know the Edinburgh audience, I don’t know what they will take to. This is going to be quite a learning curve for me. I have to go on faith, in the meantime. I have to say: this is the cinema that I believe in. I have been brought here to do this and this is what I can do!’

And he’s right: recent complications notwithstanding, it is, or should be, as simple as that. Certainly you feel the fresh start presented by Fujiwara’s tenure has reignited interest in the festival; it even seems as if the odd decisions made behind the scenes in 2011, and the lukewarm response to the event that resulted, have acted like a sort of palate cleanser: pundits and public who’d tended to default to complaint mode when it came to the EIFF appeared to take stock and realise the festival wasn’t always automatically going to be there, and they’d miss it if it was to truly slump. Conversation about what the festival could and should be got a bit real, instead of endlessly circling the old ‘too commercial/not commercial enough; too Scottish/not Scottish enough’ arguments. Long may the open-mindedness endure, and echo the questing intelligence and optimism of this interesting, driven, quietly subversive addition to our arts firmament. It’s down to you lot now. Check him out. Join his conversation. Make sure he’s doing right by my ex.

Edinburgh International Film Festival, Wed 20 June-Sun 1 July 2012.

Edinburgh International Film Festival

The oldest continually running film festival in the world, the EIFF draws on its prestige to consistently present abundant programmes of new features, documentaries, retrospectives, shorts, panel discussions and educational workshops, with a few high profile premieres thrown in for good measure.

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