That there would be an Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2023 would have seemed wildly optimistic at the beginning of the year. After the collapse of the Centre for the Moving Image in October, which forced the closure of the Filmhouse in Edinburgh, and the Belmont in Aberdeen, it seemed that the EIFF had gone out with a whimper after 75 years. Happily, Edinburgh International Festival have co-opted the festival under its banner and is running EIFF in a reduced but incredibly welcome capacity. The organisers and the programmers can be hugely proud of the phoenix they have coaxed from the ashes. We delved through the programme and selected 10 films about which we’re especially excited.
Silent Roar (Johnny Barrington / UK / 2023 / 90 mins). Where better to begin than the festival’s opening film? Johnny Barrington’s mystical surf movie is set and filmed entirely on the stunning, pristine beaches of the Isle of Lewis. Teenage surfer Dondo (Louis McCartney) is trying to come to terms wit the loss of his father at sea. Returning to school, he meets and falls for cool girl Sas (Ella Lily Hyland), encounters weird new minister, and begins to experience strange, cosmic visions. British surf movies haven’t the richest of lineage – the cultural legacy of Blue Juice is debatable – but Barrington’s mix of sex, waves, religion, damnation, and metaphysical mysticism (all captured on rugged 35mm film) is one of the more intriguing and exciting opening films in recent memory.
Afire (Christian Petzold / Germany / 2023 / 102 mins). Christian Petzold (Phoenix, Transit, Undine) teams up again with regular collaborator Paula Beer (Frantz. Never Look Away) for this satirical portrayal of passion and failure of those of a creative mindset. Beer plays a mysterious woman who is already present when a young writer (Thomas Schubert) and his best friend arrive at a seaside cottage for a writing retreat. This coincides with an outbreak of forest fires which gradually begin to pin them against the shore. Petzold has a way of applying an elliptical, seductive approach to genre that make him one of the more distinctive voices in European film, and ensures that every new film is eagerly anticipated. The presence of Beer – a constantly fascinating actor who has proved herself a perfect conduit of Petzold’s style – only adds to the expectation.
Joram (Devashish Makhija / India / 2023 / 134 mins). An intense pursuit thriller which sees a man Dasru (Manoj Bajpayee) forced to flee with his three-month-old son Joram after being recognised by someone from his past. A violent incidents years before had forced Dasru and his wife to flee their rural home to the big city, where the couple have struggled since. On their tail are a Mumbai police officer being swamped by the corruption he meets at every turn, and a vengeful politician with an intimate connection to the incident that forced Dasru to seek anonymity. Well-received at Rotterdam International Film Festival earlier this year where it was likened to a modern spin on North By Northwest, Joram looks to be a thrilling genre film and a pointed depiction of the granular political criminality that underpins the India of Narendra Modi.
Property (Daniel Bandeira / Brazil / 2023/ 100 mins). Embroiled as we all are in the cost-of-living crisis it would probably take a lot to make the average viewer sympathise with the landlord class. But Daniel Bandeira’s brutal home invasion thriller might just do that. Tereza (Malu Galli) is being transported by armoured car to the country estate she owns with her husband. She has become a recluse due to trauma from a violent incident in her past, and the hope is that relocation will ease her anxiety. However, she takes her trip at the moment that the estate workers rise up in violent revolt after being unfairly dismissed following years of exploitation. Does the family’s privilege justify their treatment at the hands of people who have been undeniably badly treated? Bandeira’s film, lensed by Pedro Sotero, who was also responsible for the look of the incredible Bacurau, is unlikely to offer any easy answers.
Orlando, My Political Biography (Paul B. Preciado / France / 2023 / 98 mins). Virginia Woolf‘s Orlando is probably the most famous text to deal overtly with gender identity. Philosopher Paul B. Preciado takes Woolf’s singular hero(ine) and imagines a multitude of Orlandos; an array of trans performers offering their own lived experience. As well as celebrating trans identity, Preciado’s film also depicts how trans people are forced to deal with government policy, the history of gender identity, psychiatry, social attitudes around the family unit, and the power of pharmaceutical multinationals. Given the perennially brutal discourse around the topic of trans identity, Orlando, My Political Biography is no softly-softly whisper for tolerance. Preciado’s film is a playful and furious rallying call that captivated the EIFF programmers at Berlinale, where it screened earlier this year.
Past Lives (Celine Song / USA / 2023 / 106 mins). A big hit at Sundance early this year, and received universally positive reviews since its US release in June, Celine Song’s debut feature deals with the reunion between Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), many years after the childhood friends were separated when Nora’s family moved from South Korea to Canada. Song uses the concept of in-yeon (where meeting someone means you must have met in a past life) to question the idea of fate and the romantic notion of the soulmate, amidst a deeper meditation on diaspora. Enrapturing critics with its delicate sadness, Past Lives seems to have avoided the ‘Sundance Movie’ formula and appears destined for many end-of-year lists come December.
Is There Anybody Out There? (Ella Glendining / UK / 2023/ 87 mins). Another Sundance breakout, Ella Glendining’s deeply personal debuts sees the filmmaker take on a quest to find someone like her. Ella was born with a disability so rare that no real statistics for it exist – she has short thigh bones, and no hip joints. Through her search to find someone who shares her specific condition, Ella reflects on the nature of disability and how disabled bodies exist in the world and are regarded by wider society. Beyond this, Is There Anybody Out There? examines wider issues about representation, and how isolating it is to never see oneself reflected anywhere else in society. Glendining’s journey is a witty, warm, and candid exploration of her sense-of-self, and how her perception in wider society imprints on this. Is There Anybody Out There? looks set to be one of the most essential documentaries of the year.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Hope Dickson Leach / UK / 2023 / 84 mins). It’s been way too long since Hope Dickson Leach’s haunting film debut The Levelling back in 2016. Not that the writer and director has been idle. Along with some short films, she also adapted Robert Louis Stevenson‘s classic gothic novella into a live hybrid theatre production with the National Theatre of Scotland. Turning back to film, Dickson Leach relocates Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde from London to Edinburgh. A chance to see the shadowy, twisting delights of Auld Reekie’s streets in all their glory, as well as an interesting cast that features veterans like David Hayman along rising stars like Lorn Macdonald, Dickson Leach’s take on this perennially malleable tale will be a must-see as it gets its World Premiere at EIFF.
Choose Irvine Welsh (Ian Jefferies / UK / 2023 / 91 mins). Another World Premiere, it would be unthinkable to leave this portrait of one of contemporary Edinburgh’s most iconic sons of this list. Ian Jefferies documentary sees Irvine Welsh delve into his personal archival material to reflect on a life and career that’s taken him from Leith to London, San Francisco, and Miami. Supplemented by an impressive roll call of admirers from local luminaries such as Martin Compston, Gail Porter, and Bobby Gillespie, to other iconoclasts like Danny Boyle and Iggy Pop, Choose Irvine Welsh may be a tribute to a man who’s left one of the most vivid footprints on Scottish culture in the last thirty years, but it’s unlikely to fall into empty hagiography.
Fremont (Babak Jalali / USA / 2023 / 88 mins). As we began with the opening film, so we end with the closing night picture. Babak Jalali’s black and white dramedy follows Donya (Anaita Wali Zada), an Afghan refugee who emigrated to the US after acting as a translator for the American army. By day, Donya works in a factory making fortune cookies, at night she struggles with guilt and insomnia. Fremont adopts a similar tragicomic take on the refugee experience as Ben Sharrock‘s Limbo but adopts the aesthetic and tone of Jim Jarmusch, a filmmaker whose outsider sympathies transfer well to this tale. Anchored by the central performance by real-life refugee Anaita Wali Zada, it’s sure to be a wry, offbeat conclusion to EIFF.
EIFF runs from Fri 18 to Wed 23 Aug 2023. Screenings are at Everyman Cinema and Vue Omni Centre