A tale of two cities

Edinburgh Festival - Bob Flynn finds closed doors at the film events, but receives a warm welcome at

Almost exactly a decade ago, I watched Clint Eastwood stroll into the Cameo cinema in Edinburgh for a public interview during a particularly cash-strapped yet star-studded film festival. Eastwood was in with White Hunter, Black Heart - far from his best, but it didn't matter; he was there in all his iconic glory. When questions were opened to the audience, a man with the thickest Leith accent asked why the star had stopped making westerns. Eastwood leaned forward, cupped his ear, smiled politely and said: "I'm sorry, us colonials have difficulty understanding our original accents sometimes." Memories, and festivals, are made of such moments: the local western fan confronting Clint; the paying punter partaking in the sometimes exclusive world of the arts. Two years later, by the way, Eastwood made his masterpiece, Unforgiven - a western.

In the eyes of the Fringe 2000 hurricane, Edinburgh is a tale of two cities - the working, hassled population negotiating festival cavalcades, while the artists float around the streets in a creative haze. In addition to the opening of this year's official Edinburgh International Festival, two major offshoots launched into the busy waters on 13 August. And this is also the tale of two specialist festivals: the longest-running film festival on earth, now in its 54th year, and the book festival, which, starting in 1983, is a baby by comparison.

Both are in transition. The film festival, in the fourth year of Lizzie Francke's directorship, is moving towards an industry event, trying to gain a toehold in the lower slopes of giant market places such as Cannes and Toronto. The book festival, under the director Faith Liddell, has thrown open its doors and declared free public access to its green, tented HQ in Charlotte Square.

The film festival opened with the most vilified Palme d'Or winner of recent times, Dancer in the Dark, starring Bjork in the perfect perversion of the musical genre directed by that great joker in the European pack, Lars von Trier. The film festival continues until 27 August, running one of its most eclectic programmes with a traditional British twist - although Guy Ritchie's Snatched and Ken Loach's Bread and Roses are conspicuous by their absence.

But, this year, the festival that has always held the cinema-goer uppermost is veering towards an industry bias. In the recent past, the festival contained a growing New British Film business enclave - with industry delegates viewing new British products in a cramped videotech - which, this year, has expanded into the new, British Council-backed Film UK section (or "brand", as they cryptically put it). To cut to the chase, it means that there are more industry delegates than ever. For the first time, American buyers have been encouraged to fly in to view British products, and there is a slew of lectures, seminars and discussions at venues across town - none of which allow public access, existing only as an industry forum.

It should be said that film is a diffuse, costly industry which involves teams of people in even the most low-budget project. It is the most expensive performance-based art, pound for pound, reel for reel (or, these days, downloaded digital disc). It costs a vast amount and, after the dubious Lottery-funded debacles of last year, British film desperately needs promotion as much as the next Fringe show. However, the doors are softly closing on sections of one of the most transparent of festivals, endemic of the shift to a trade fest, away from an open celebration of the moving image.

There is a suggestion that film festivals are no longer viable without in-house marketing and industry facilities. But it is here that a cold shiver slides up the spine, along with nightmare visions of the imminent TV festival, the hermetically sealed media coven that, apart from oozing into the George Hotel yearly, has nothing to do with Edinburgh. The TV delegates, you see, don't dare sneak out of the conference rooms in case they miss someone to suck up to. It might as well relocate to Bath - and, having attended a few of its bashes and felt the palpable smog of obsequiousness and internal machinations, I wish it would.

This is not to say that the film festival has forgotten its traditional openness. Francke is a devout cinema lover, and she delights in unveiling the latest catch from Cannes and Sundance to the festival audiences. But please, don't let the market mentality become paramount. Cannes on the Forth is an alarming, elitist prospect, especially when people such as the head of Film Four, Paul Webster, and the chief executive of the new Film Council, John Woodward, are addressing only their colleagues. The doors should be opened to the same section of the public that they, and others, are supposed to be serving.

Books are an industry, too, and we are, it turns out, reading more than ever, despite the new dotcom world. And not far from the Filmhouse, the book festival, of all things, has become the sexiest, hottest ticket in town. Various Fringe stars have themselves expressed a yearning for tickets to Liddell's unprecedented programme, featuring a powerhouse global A-list of guests from Norman Mailer to Moon Unit Zappa, and including, in the children's section, the only festival appearance of J K Rowling after the galactic explosion of Harry Potter. The kids' programme alone has adults tearing tickets from their offspring's hands to hear the likes of the ex-Python Terry Jones expounding on Chaucer.

Liddell has created a user-friendly, family-orientated event, with free access to the books compound with its tented cafes, including the famed mirrored Spiegeltent. She has captured an army of international authors alongside the first contemporary Scottish showcase, featuring Irvine Welsh and Alasdair Gray, and the introduction of the Witness talks, with Fergal Keane, Gavin Bell, William Shawcross and John Pilger discussing the horrors of the wars they bring into our living rooms.

I could go on. The selection is wide and spectacular, but the main thing is that it is the most public of events. Liddell, a veteran of Fringe marketing, has deliberately removed the veil of exclusivity. In the book festival, nothing is screened off for business seminars or private readings, and what the public gets is the artists, the movers and the shakers, living, breathing and speaking right there in front of them. Which, remembering the thrill of Eastwood at the Cameo, is what all the Edinburgh festivals should be about.

The Edinburgh International Film Festival runs until 27 August. Call 0131 229 2550 or visit www.edfilmfest.org.uk

The Edinburgh International Book Festival runs until 28 August. Call 0131 624 5050 or visit www.edbookfest.co.uk

This article first appeared in The New Statesman Essay - What are we doing to our children?

2000-08-21