First-time director Francis Lee wrote God’s Own Country, which charts the relationship between two young sheep farmers on the Yorkshire moors, while he was working in a scrapyard after quitting acting.
Lee, who lives in a “wooden hut” on the moors, was making his first ever visit to the festival at the age of 47 to launch its big birthday curtain-raiser.
Richard E Grant, Ewen Bremner, Kevin Bacon, Stanley Tucci, Oliver Stone, Danny Huston, Kevin Guthrie, Juliet Stevenson are among the stars appearing at the 10-day festival.
Lee, who appeared on the red carpet with stars Josh O’Connor and Alex Secareanu, said it had been “very tough” to get anyone to back his film, given his lack of a track record and the subject matter.
But the man behind behind what is already being tipped to be one of the best British films of the year has praised the EIFF’s organisers for their choice of opening gala - as a major breakthrough for depictions of same-sex relationships on screen.
God’s Own Country charts the events which unfold when Johnny, a young farmer in the Yorkshire Pennines, meets Gheorghe, a Romanian migrant worker
The film, which is contention for the EIFF’s prestigious best British feature award, has already been at Sundance, in the United States, where Lee was named best international director, and Berlin, where it won a jury prize.
He said: “I gave up acting about five years ago. It wasn’t working for me any more. I had always wanted to write and tell stories visually. I had never felt confident to sit down and put pen to paper. I reached a certain age when I thought: ‘Jesus, just give it a go.’ I got a job in a scrapyard to make some money and self-financed three short films. While I was doing that I wrote this.
“You only have to look at the incredible films that have had their UK premiere in Edinburgh. It felt like I’m in great company. To be offered the opening night film, particularly for a film which has a same-sex relationship, in a mainstream festival feels like a massive achievement.
“It’s very unusual with this kind of content to open a mainstream film festival. It felt like great exposure for the film.
“It’s not a coming film - Johnny has no problems with his sexuality. But it is about him opening up emotionally enough to love and be loved.
“The message this sends is that Edinburgh is interested in playing diverse stories, that have resonance for everybody, regardless of who the characters are. This has been an extraordinary year for queer films, particularly with Moonlight winning the best picture Oscar and other breakthrough films at festivals.
“These films now seem to be speaking to a much wider audience, rather than a niche audience. That is incredibly progressive, not just for cinema, but for us as people.”
Festival director Mark Adams said: "For me, it is just a film. We didn't come it at from any particular perspective. It is just a really great British movie.
"It's one of best films of the year for me. I think it will feature in the awards - I suspect it will be at the BAFTAs and have that kind of profile.
"It's really optimistic and compassionate and very moving. It's a very powerful movie and Francis is a very talented filmmaker."
Lee worked intensively with his two lead actors for three months before filming began to develop their characters, including sending them out to work on real-life Yorkshire farms for two weeks.
Lee added: “I grew up on the Pennines in Yorkshire, which was very isolated, but I escaped to go to London to train to be an actor. I worked as an actor for about 20 years, but could never get that landscape out of my head. it just really got under my skin.
“When it came to start making film it was a place I really wanted to investigate. On the one hand, I’d always seen it as incredibly freeing and open, but it was also incredibly isolating and brutal.
I had never seen it depicted on screen the way I saw it and I had never seen those people, who I knew so well, who worked that landscape, depicted in a truthful, authentic way.
“Other films that were shot there always went for really big wide shots of the landscape, so it looked beautiful, bucolic and pastoral. I had only associated it with loneliness, cold, wind and rain. I wanted to show a little bit of how i saw that world.
“For me, the hardest thing I ever had to do in life was to open up, to be loved and to love. I just wanted to investigate that.”