Page last updated at 05:20 GMT, Tuesday, 16 June 2009 06:20 UK

Talking shop: Hannah McGill

The Edinburgh International Film Festival, which is now in its 63rd consecutive year, begins on Wednesday.

The full listing includes 23 world premieres, among 135 features from 33 countries.

Hannah McGill took over as artistic director of the festival less than three years ago, at the tender age of 29.


What is it like directing a festival twice as old as you?

Hannah McGill is artistic director of the Edinburgh Film Festival
Hannah McGill is artistic director of the Edinburgh Film Festival

The seniority of EIFF is one of its great strengths - along with Cannes and Venice, it's one of the world's three longest-established film festivals.

One of my jobs is to ensure that being old does not equal getting staid or set in our ways. It is vital that we constantly adapt to changes in our industry, in technology, and in audience needs and expectations.

As for me, it's rather nice to know that the festival has been in existence my whole life, marking every single year.

I do spend a lot of time looking at the old catalogues and programmes, because it's incredible to see all the films that have passed through the festival over its long life.

In any case - I guarantee that by the end of the festival, I will feel twice as old as it!

What is the festival all about?

It's many things to many people, so you can design your own experience - whether you want to seek out the next big thing; see anticipated movies long before they happen; star-spot a bit; or just experience types of cinema that aren't necessarily readily available on the big screen year-round.

Because we bring in guests for most of the films, from actors, writers and directors to producers and cinematographers, it's also a chance to really talk to the people behind the work.

Socially, it's really informal and good fun - lots of people around with common interests, lots of buzz.

For me, the crucial things are discovery of new talent, demystification of the film industry and its technologies, and a really user-friendly, fun experience.

How is it different to other festivals?

Each film festival - and there are thousands of them now - has a unique character and different functions.

Edinburgh has an intimacy that is very special: geographically it's really manageable, and we try very hard to break down barriers between the audiences and the filmmakers.

Hannah recommends nature documentary Crimson Wing
Hannah recommends nature documentary Crimson Wing

Of course there's a glamour element and respect for the visiting talent, but we want the audience to really feel part of it.

Also we have the advantage of being in one of the most beautiful cities in the world - Edinburgh is really a very special and particularly cinematic setting.

Also because the festival is 63 years old, we have an immense amount of history with thousands of filmmakers, meaning that there's a lot of love and loyalty out there for us, and a lot of creative relationships that have been forged as a result of festival meetings.

Which festivals are you competing against?

We have very friendly and collaborative relationships with lots of other festivals around the world, actually - obviously there's a degree of competition in terms of attracting world premieres, but we also share a lot, in terms of films and talent costs and information and mutual support.

We draw a lot of our content from visits to other festivals, and they get stuff from us too - it's symbiotic.

The only real competition arises in terms of festivals that are very near us date-wise, when a filmmaker or an industry delegate has to make a choice about which one to attend or where to put a film.

But that's a small element compared to how much positive interaction there is.

The very big festivals, particularly Cannes, do have an impact, in the sense that business decisions are made on the basis of those screenings.

We do have to wait a lot on decisions that are made around what Cannes do and don't select.

We are not trying to be an event on the scale of Cannes, however, so we're not competing there - just reacting.

Why did you move the festival from August to June last year - and how did it go?

We moved for a lot of reasons that are primarily to do with Edinburgh and its wondrous onslaught of cultural activity in August.

We felt that the city and the country and all of the festivals would gain by the wealth being spread somewhat through the year.

August was incredibly logistically difficult, because the city is so full then, and the practicalities of hotels, restaurants, taxis etc. were extremely complex.

Plus press space for the arts is incredibly scarce, so we didn't get the coverage that the event merited simply because so much else was going on.

We wanted to give the film festival a chance to stand alone and really define itself as a film event, rather than part of a general arts celebration.

And in film industry terms, August was hard - lots of people on holiday, and also very close to a lot of huge international film festivals in September and August.

To our great pleasure it worked very well last year.

We did well both artistically and financially, and the idea of a June festival took hold to the extent that now we barely query it!

How do you choose the films?

It's a long, intense process that lasts all year.

The other programmers and I travel to other festivals and film showcases year-round; we also source films via our submissions system, which allows anyone to send in a film for a small fee that will be viewed by our programmers; and we deal directly with sales agents, distributors and individual filmmakers with product they want us to see.

Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal will be in Edinburgh
Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna will be in Edinburgh

We watch and watch and watch, we rate films and compare them and discuss them, and we put together as diverse and interesting a combination as we can.

I make judgements based on my knowledge of our audience and what tends to work here, plus of course, interesting talent that we want to include - but also just on my own responses and those of the programmers.

Of course we're affected by the owners' plans for their films in terms of release dates and so on, as well as by talent availability, so we don't have entirely free rein.

Each film is a separate and sometimes very involved negotiation.

Sometimes it's filmmakers pleading to be included, and sometimes it's us pleading with them!

What are the highlights this year?

I'm in love with the film The Crimson Wing, which is the most fascinating and involving nature documentary I've seen in years - it's a portrait of the life cycles of flamingos in Tanzania.

I'm thrilled to be bringing two of my favourite actors, Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal, to Edinburgh for the UK premiere of Carlos Cuaron's Rudo & Cursi.

I'm yet more thrilled that the great Joe Dante, director of Gremlins and Innerspace and Matinee, and now 3D pioneer, is going to be on hand - that's my 80s childhood coming out... and then there's Sharmila Tagore, one of the legends of both arms of Indian cinema: Bengali art film and commercial Bollywood cinema.

She was the glamour girl of Indian cinema in the 60s and apart from anything else, I want to get eyeliner tips from her.

And I'm overwhelmed that Mary Sweeney, the genius who edited the vast bulk of David Lynch's films, has given us the world premiere of her directorial debut, Baraboo.

That's just a few - it's all very close to my heart and worth some dedicated exploration!



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