With a long-established tradition and advanced know-how, Scotland’s festivals come in all shapes and sizes. The remarkable August conglomerate integrates unique facets such as the Fringe, the Military Tattoo and the Edinburgh International Book Festival, beloved for compactness and conviviality. Beyond that, there are a myriad of music, food, science and art festivals, through to the Highland Games, Hogmanay and the Hebrides celebrations.
Whereas before, the norm was to have one singular festival of high visibility, nowadays tens of vibrant smaller festivals take up unoccupied spots on the roster all year round.
Andrew Dixon, Creative Scotland’s chief executive, described this festival proliferation as “nothing short of a miracle”, referring to the 40 book festivals spanning the country from Ullapool to the Borders, which transform the local economies.
If we look at the world of film festivals, which I am more closely familiar with, there is another miracle in the making, as a host of them have popped up all over Scotland. The venerable Edinburgh International Film Festival, established in 1947, is the oldest continuously running film festival in the world. EIFF, however, is no longer the sole kid on the block; more than 30 other film festivals take place around Scotland.
Take Africa in Motion, for example, an event that in less than a decade unobtrusively grew and evolved into the largest African film showcase outside Africa. Taking place each October in Edinburgh, it gives the Scottish capital a unique competitive advantage in this specific cultural sphere.
Two other unique film festival models have emerged in recent years and resonated all over the world: the handmade-feel Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams in Nairn, where films are played to the community on a makeshift screen, and the Pilgrimage, a peripatetic experience of cinema in the Highlands. Both were inspired and led by Tilda Swinton and Mark Cousins, two friends who know the world of film festivals from the inside out.
Alongside the mainstream fests in Glasgow and Edinburgh and a host of French, Italian, Latin American and other nationally or regionally themed showcases, other festivals that perform community service – the respected human rights-concerned Document (Glasgow), the Celtic Media Festival (which alternates between the West of Scotland and other parts of the UK), the Mental Health Film Festival (Glasgow), Take One Action (Edinburgh) and the Discovery children’s film festival in Dundee – have emerged and evolved into fixtures on the Scottish film festival calendar.
Film festivals nowadays take place in locations that have not traditionally been known as cinephile hothouses: such as the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival in Bo’ness, the Banff Mountain Film Festival, the Small Islands Film Festival at Benbecula and other locations, the Uist Eco Film Festival.
Significantly, this mushrooming happens at a time when cinema, having entered the age of digital reproduction and having become available on “a server near you”, may no longer retain its characteristic of an art that is to be experienced collectively. The film festival remains one of the few places where film art and togetherness go hand in hand. Yet many festivals now stream online in parallel with their live programmes.
Having recognised that “content is king”, film festivals have become conscious that, with their solid curatorial expertise and access to unique material, they could play a more prominent role in the global circulation of cultural goods.
In some instances, festivals have started licensing content to dedicated television channels; in others they have established DVD labels; even more frequently, festivals take their programmes on tour. The Tribeca Film Festival, the Lower Manhattan event, has now rebranded itself as Tribeca Enterprises, a venture where the film festival capitalizes on its network, access to niche content and celebrities, and acts as prime mover for a variety of commercial activities.
In a context where new technologies profoundly shatter traditional patterns of production and distribution, cultural activity moves away from continuous circulation circuits and becomes clustered around discrete events. The question on my mind is, then, what are we going to do with the expertise that has been accumulated in the process of all this work? Will we just keep marvelling at the miracle or would we aim to gain from the curatorial and managerial expertise that comes along with this proliferation? Can this ambitious model of Scottish cultural practice be exported and embraced by other small nations? In a world where the festival has an edge, what can Scotland do to turn its decade-long tradition of staging some of the most acclaimed events?
Can one think of our festival models as intellectual property that can be boosted, protected and turned into a conceptual export for the benefit of others, who are ready to embrace models of cultural life that have been tried and tested on these shores? Can “Scotland festival nation” be something more than a slogan for internal usage? Can it be a key cultural export, to Europe and beyond? I think it can.
• Professor Dina Iordanova writes about global film festivals, distribution and cultural industries. Her recent books include Digital Disruption: Cinema Moves On-line and Film Festivals and Activism. She is based at the University of St Andrews.