Nick Whitfield’s surrealist comedy wins the EIFF Michael Powell Award, The Dry Land scoops best international feature.

Nick Whitfield’s debut feature Skeletons has picked up the Michael Powell Award for the Best New British Feature at the 64th Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Jason Isaacs, Ed Gaughan, Andrew Buckley and Paprika Steen star in the surrealist comedy  about two travelling salesmen turned exorcists who literally clean skeletons out of people’s closets.  

Whitfield also wrote the film, which started life as a short. It was produced by Forward Films’ Tracy Brimm and Kate Myers and Edge City Films’ Paul Welsh, and developed with regional agency EM Media. The film shot on location in Derbyshire.

This year’s Michael Powell Jury of Sir Patrick Stewart, director Mike Hodges, film curator Laurence Kardish, director Rafi Pitts and actress Britt Ekland, said they had chosen the film because it “best exemplifies the spirit of Michael Powell in its original vision and dark humour.”

A special mention was given to Edward and Rory McHenry for their animated revision of modern British history, Jackboots On Whitehall.

Last year’s winner of the Michael Powell award was Duncan Jones’ Moon, which went on to win the outstanding British debut at the BAFTAs earlier this year.  

In other awards, David Thewlis scooped the best performance in a British feature prize, for his “energetic and electrifying” portrayal of Jum McCann in Bernard Rose’s feature about Howard Marx, Mr Nice.

Thewlis said it was a “thrill and totally unexpected, made all the more special by being honoured by one of my favourite cities in the world.”

US director Ryan Piers Williams’ The Dry Land was named best international feature. The jury said the decision was unanimous for the “delicate and emotional” feature about a soldier who returns from a tour of duty in Iraq who is unable to settle back into normal home life in a small Texas town. It stars America Ferrera, who was up in Edinburgh for the festival, alongside Melissa Leo and Jason Ritter.

The new directors award went to Gareth Edwards for his sci-fi romance Monsters, which stars Whitney Able and Scoot McNairy. Special mentions were given to Ursula Antoniak’s Locarno and Mar Del Pla winning debut feature Nothing Personal, Iraqi film maker Mohamed Al-Daradji’s Son Of Babylon and US director Debra Granik for her thriller Winter’s Bone, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year.

Laura Poitras’ The Oath was named as best feature documentary. The film is the second documentary in the US director’s trilogy of post 9/11 docs, and centres the lives of two former close associates of Osama Bin Laden.  

The awards were presented by EIFF Artistic Director Hannah McGill and patrons Tilda Swinton and Seamus McGarvey ahead of the festival’s closing gala screening of Hattie Dalton’s Third Star.

Overall, the response to this year’s line up has been mixed, with some of the more eagerly anticipated British films drawing a muted response from festival goers. In contrast, the international line-up – which included Toy Story 3, The Illusionist and A Winter’s Bone – received a much more positive reception.

Artistic director Hannah McGill told Screen that she was happy with the way the festival had gone. “You don’t expect everyone to love every single film, but you do want them to understand our message.”

“I think there was a bit of confusion over the years as to what we were doing. Are we trying to be a little mini Cannes, do we have the same projects as London? Is it something a bit more edgy?

I felt like we needed to refine the offering and I think that’s what we’ve done. Obviously there are celebs and red carpets, but I feel that people are realising that what is exciting is the newness and the element of discovery.”

She said that the festival’s June slot, which has been in place for three years, was working well: “We knew it would take a couple of years for the June date to be embedded in people’s heads. This feels like the year when no-one has gone “this festival used to be in august.” This festival is in June now and people have got that.”

And she dismissed the idea that there was any rivalry with the London Film Festival, adding that there was more than enough room for two British festivals on the calendar.

“When the Film Council invested in us and London, they saw it as a better use of their investment if there are clearly defined roles for the festival. That was when London invested in has it’s award ceremony and red carpet events. That’s their side, our side is 80 first and second time film makers, 22 world premieres. I think it’s really working out and it’s nice to feel that we are not at loggerheads with London. It is completely right that the UK should have at least two significant festivals.  We are not fighting over the same bit of cake anymore.”