I remember the shock when Alfred Hitchcock died. For film fans in Edinburgh, Scotland and further afield, Thursday was a similar body blow. The city’s great cultural cinema, Filmhouse, and its august Edinburgh international film festival have both ceased trading.
Martin Scorsese, Maggie Cheung, the Coen Brothers, Andrei Tarkovsky, Lynne Ramsay, Leslie Caron, Steve Martin, Bill Forsyth, Derek Jarman, Thelma Schoonmaker, Michael Powell and many others went to Filmhouse like moths to a flame, seeking what I sought when I first went in 1984: a place to come out as a movie lover. An exhilaration, and a harbor in which to shelter and from which to sail.
Poor on the outside and rich on the inside, and led by pioneers like Lynda Myles, Murray Grigor and many others, the Edinburgh film festival was feminist, unbridled, Nonconformist Scottish and passionately international. It had its own pulpit and its sermons were modernist and surprising. It changed film culture and its apparent demise makes me want to say: stop the clocks, or dim the projectors, or toll the bells. Or watch the ending of Douglas Sirk’s great film Imitation of Life, where Mahalia Jackson sings a lament.
Why have Filmhouse and the Edinburgh film festival stopped trading? Because of massively increased energy bills, because of Covid, because it pays its staff proper wages, which have escalated. Filmhouse’s audience skewed older and those people have been slower to return to the pictures. The venue is not purpose-built and so it is expensive to run.
The Edinburgh film festival and Filmhouse are also victims of their own success. Like many other cultural cinemas in the UK and across the world, they slowly built an audience for subtitled films. Now multiplexes such as Vue and Cineworld show such films, which is great. Mission accomplished. Except that the R&D people, the ones who built the story, have started to lose the story.
And there are other factors. In the last few days many in Edinburgh and its environs have decried the closures, others had assumed that Filmhouse and the EIFF would always be there, yet they rarely bought tickets. They loved these organizations from a distance. And, like many arts venues, Edinburgh’s cultural cinemas haven’t overcome class barriers.
Other cities and communities can learn from this. Our city of Edinburgh has been wounded, wounded. And we have a government in Scotland, and a culture minister, and an arts organization – Screen Scotland – that cares about this stuff. They’re not oblivious; they understand how a cinema and a festival can raise the tide. If you’re reading this in other parts of the UK, does the same apply?
There’s room for some optimism here. Community cinema in the UK is thriving. The Edinburgh international film festival will hopefully be reborn. The ideas of its creative director, Kristy Matheson, might help ensure that. And Edinburgh’s Filmhouse might be a Lazarus too. Like many western cities, we have a big older population. Imagine a dozen new movie buses that drive people with reduced mobility into the new Filmhouse to see Mahalia Jackson sing in Imitation of Life, or the new movie by Sebastián Lelio.
And many cities like Edinburgh have large student populations. Cultural cinemas here and elsewhere can embrace students far more. Good work has been done in this area but more needs to come.
I’m a film-maker because of Filmhouse and the Edinburgh international film festival. I need these places, our city needs them, our country needs them, our culture needs them. I’m lucky enough to know many of the great filmmakers around the world, and they all say something similar. We can make good films as long as we live close to a cinema that shows greatness. We need to be half an hour away from Agnès Varda, Martin Scorsese, Barry Jenkins, Lynne Ramsay, Akira Kurosawa and Jane Campion.