This relatively small film festival has a track record of attracting heavyweight guests. In 2012 Brian Blessed took centre stage. In 2013 it was Monty Python’s Terry Jones. This year, during the Festival’s first weekend alone, special guests included actor and director Philip Davis (Hold Back The Night), the director and cast of independent World War Two film, Allies, and Derbyshire born Oscar nominee John Hurt.
This year, the festival evolves from its identity focussed ID Fest roots into a ten-day cinematic event known simply as Derby Film Festival. The upshot of this transition is a much broader take on themes and, this time, it’s technology.
Dystopian drama Nineteen Eighty-Four, starring guest of honour John Hurt, was just one of the technology themed classics to kick off opening day. Highlighting technology of past, present and future, this year’s festival encompasses films as far ranging as railway comedy Oh, Mr Porter! and Michael Crichton’s Westworld.
Keen to explore the direct relationship between technology and the film industry, Festival directors Adam Buss and Adam J Marsh also included VHS Night – an opportunity to explore some of the rare movies preserved on this dying medium – along with an energetic panel debate on the future of film criticism.
Here, regional journalist for the Yorkshire Post, Tony Earnshaw, described the constraints of being “an analogue guy in a digital world”. Later Scott Jordan Harris, UK correspondent for Roger Ebert’s immense review site, noted the perils of internet criticism including the lure of comedic click bait and risk of death threats.Even so, as Harris described, online criticism offers the field its best opportunity for survival, namely in the ability to create one stop shops where audiences can watch short films, read analysis and put forward their own thoughts. For keen explorers of new talent, this shift towards the holistic film experience is welcome news offering the potential to feed the short film industry.
Having established that modern film criticism is not dead, the panel turned to its most salient debate – who is listening?
For those critics able to negotiate manipulation by studios in the form of enticing press junkets, the surge in bland, high profit formula films – the multiplex effect – provides the last great challenge. Describing billion-dollar film-maker Michael Bay as impervious to the film critic, coverage of blockbusters was explained by Earnshaw as an essential “trade-off,” buying a small amount of remaining space to introduce general print readers to new areas of film.
Scott similarly defined the role of film critics as “truffle-pickers” finding and disseminating films that audiences might not notice in the wake of blockbuster marketing. Panellist Adam Batty most clearly represented this truffle-picking vision of the future, effectively carving out his own niche audience through self-developed website Hope Lies At 24 Frames Per Second. Batty knows his own, hand crafted, audience well and his experience defines the glorious opportunities of the web for both film fans and writers.
It’s apt that this debate on the multiplex problem took place within the walls of Derby’s Quad – a hub for the arts that regularly competes with the multiplexes for film hungry audiences – at a Festival that is essentially one giant truffle-pick, passionately disseminating hidden gems.
Wizard’s Way is one such Festival jewel. A film by Metal Man – a collaboration of authors Socrates Adams-Florou, Chris Killen and Joe Stretch – this priceless found footage mockumentary about players of archaic, maths based online game Wizard’s Way during its final days was filmed on a £350 camera with a boom made from an Argos floor lamp.
Encapsulating the Festival’s idea of technology as both past and future, game-player Barry (Adams-Florou) sleeps in a bathtub, next to a toilet, surrounded by VHS tapes. Still, Barry insists he “lives in the present” and it’s this finely honed characterisation enhanced by cleverly dressed sets that ensures Wizard’s Way overflows with dry humour. Through Barry we’re introduced to Windows (Kristian Scott), the “Michael Jackson of Wizard’s Way” who spends all of his spare time slaying dragons with his ‘in-game’ wife. Barry and Windows attempt to find a way back to the ‘real world’ when the game’s servers are turned off, rebuilding their empty lives with help of current technology, YouTube.
The genius of Wizard’s Way lies as much in its comment on documentary film-making as its tale about technology, following film-makers Chris and Joe in characters based loosely on themselves as they attempt to turn the story of Barry and Windows into an award winning documentary. Intense close ups, references like “think Bashir” and cruel manipulation – “we would never film anything that you feel uncomfortable with” says Joe while secretly filming – add up to a sharp and witty commentary on aspirational film-making. In its final act Wizard’s Way questions success, ambition, friendship and loyalty and this small film becomes very big indeed.
This hasn’t gone unnoticed by Hollywood. It turns out Jack Black has already purchased the rights to a remake. Despite his gift for mining niche lifestyles (Be Kind Rewind, Tenacious D) it’s difficult to see what this producer’s quirky style could improve. The charm of Wizard’s Way comes primarily from its low budget approach. The unpolished, improvised performances and the desktop computer edit all feed into Wizard’s Way’s endearing found footage style. Despite having pitched their own idea for the remake, Metal Man’s film is now in the hands of Hollywood.
On leaving the Wizard’s Way Q&A screening, the small audience that had convened for this gem of a preview met with the masses awaiting John Hurt In Conversation. It’s a shame that some of Derby Film Festival’s opening events remained relatively untapped by comparison to its headliner. It shows, in miniature, that the task of truffle-picking remains a tough one, but Derby Film Festival is doing a stand out job and it’s not over yet.
Derby Film Festival runs until Sunday 18th May. Find out more here.Read Part Two