Siobhan Synnot: The truth is that the ageing EIFF badly needed a hip replacement

WE USED to talk about the Edinburgh International Film Festival as the grandpaw of film festivals, admired by industry venerables such as Woody Allen, and of course John Huston, who declared it the only film festival “worth a damn”.

But in recent years, conversations surrounding the Edfest have been about its midlife crisis.

This came to a head last year, when the festival rejected favourite movie touchstones such as red carpet premieres and awards, started waffling about having snow in its hair and employed dodgy slogans such as “All That Heaven Allows”, suggesting that it didn’t really want to be a boring old film festival at all, but an astronaut.

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No wonder the festival’s new artistic companion, Chris Fujiwara, looked so haunted when he breakfasted with the press back in January. Fujiwara is a polite guy, and the uncomfortable truth is that the ageing EIFF –which opens this week – badly needed a hip replacement.

The recession is not good news for festival cinema; all over the world, the talk is of budgets being retired. High-rolling blockbusters like Batman, Prometheus and Brave stayed away from Cannes. Greece’s Thessaloniki has axed its cash prizes, and the plug has been pulled altogether on the poor old Valencia’s Mostra.

The news is bad for audiences too; at the Los Angeles Film Festival, also in June, the best discount package offers 12 films for $200, which is more than £10 a ticket. Edinburgh’s multibuy is a more reasonable £7.20 a film, but that is still a substantial investment for a cinephile. This year’s brochure is fatter and more wide-ranging, but also more challenging than it has been in years, with most of us consulting our bluffer’s guides for the retrospective focus on Japan’s Shinji Somai.

The big ask is whether Edinburgh in June will reveal that an indigenous audience of film fans is out there and prepared to chance their arm on world cinema. The worry is that they have gone home to their parents, and won’t be back till August.

The EIFF was conceived by idealists, and grew up in a confident, supportive era when film festivals were few and far between. More recently, however, it’s been expected not just to showcase movies but to make a contribution, first as tourist bait, and latterly as a kind of industry cafeteria.

But if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to shape a film festival. This year Fujiwara and his team have presented an independently minded, suited and booted EIFF, but in the next two weeks, it falls to the Scottish audiences to decide if they want to support a 65-year-old as it struggles to get back on its feet.

• Last week Siobhan... bumped into Scottish folkfather Jimmie Macgregor in the street, looking fit as two fleas and busier than a fiddler’s elbow; he’s off to do the Fringe