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A British boutique festival without an identity crisis

May Contain Spoilers

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Britain is overrun with film festivals. I wouldn't be shocked to learn we have more per hundred miles per year than any nation on Earth. But there is room for more, provided they are carefully conceived, intelligently programmed and don't overreach themselves in their early years. ID Fest, which ran this year between May 24 and 27, is a fine example.

Beginning in 2010, with a year off in 2011, ID Fest is "a boutique festival", with each instalment programmed around a specific theme branching from the larger theme of identity - hence "ID" Fest. As such, it separates itself from Britain's large international festivals; small, un-themed local festivals; and genre fests, of which there seem to be more each month. The first ID Fest investigated what it means to be English (as opposed to British) but the second had a far broader focus, befitting its ambitions to become a truly international festival. In 2012, its theme was heroism.

"Get Carter" is on DVD from Netflix, and streams for $2.99 from Amazon and Vudu.

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ID Fest is held in QUAD, a blocky, sand-coloured arts centre in the city of Derby in England's East Midlands. (The city's name is pronounced "Dar-bee"; English eyes see a headline about the Kentucky Derby and read it as being about "The Kentucky Dar-bee".) Derby is not renowned as a capital of culture. But I think that is changing; and I think it will continue to change; and I think ID Fest will be a large part of the reason why.

The festival sprang from the ribs of two Adams: Adam Buss and Adam Marsh. Adam Buss is the slicker of the two; he seems to combine a film fan's passion with a businessman's instinct for economic survival. This is heartening for those who'd like to see ID Fest grow: so many failed festivals are started by people who only possess the former.

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Despite Adam Buss's obvious passion for film, it is Adam Marsh who is the cineaste of the pair. Big and bearded, he nevertheless looked childlike throughout the long weekend, as if the idea of attending a festival he had in part programmed was the realization of a childhood dream. It probably was. Marsh is the sort of film aficionado who could sit for five hours holding a hundred interconnected conversations about B-movies and obscure actors. In his energy and encyclopaedic recall, he reminds me a little of the Chicagoan critic Peter Sobcynski, who reminds me a lot of Quentin Tarantino. I'd like to watch the three of them - Marsh, Sobcynski and Tarantino - onstage discussing films randomly suggested by their audience. It'd be fun to see who could talk the longest. I suspect Quentin would flag first.

I imagine it's Adam Buss who has the clear-headed five-year plan about where ID Fest is going, but I imagine it's Adam Marsh who thinks to schedule "Night of the Comet" after "Robocop" in a late-night double bill. ID Fest is not, however, solely the work of Buss and Marsh, though they certainly don't head a large staff. The whole event appears to be run by six or seven indefatigable staff members, some of them volunteers, who are each as disciplined and as busy as ball boys at Wimbledon.

There were several roads through the festival and I took the one more travelled, attending the marquee events but missing some of the smaller ones that were scheduled simultaneously. So, on the first evening, I heard Mike Hodges, director of "Flash Gordon", appear live in conversation ahead of a screening of his best film, "Get Carter," instead of seeing Michel Hazanavicius's "OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies" in the adjacent cinema.

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Hodges, who will be 80 this summer, was given the festival's first "Hero of Cinema" award. If I ask you to imagine a kindly old gentleman, the image that will come into your mind is likely very similar to the one Hodges presents as he shuffles into a room. Although he is small and slightly stooped, white-haired and a touch hard of hearing, his mind seems ageless. He is no raconteur but his stories are better because of it. When he talks of battling the insane suggestions of Dino De Laurentiis, or of the ridiculous casting demands of studio bosses, his audience knows he is not exaggerating for its enjoyment.

Hodges returned the next day to teach a master class in direction and is to be commended for not repeating himself. The night before was filled with the gentle reminiscences of a man who has passed his life in the movie business; his master class was filled with the lessons that enabled him to survive it. Hodges was also scheduled to introduce his director's cut of "The Terminal Man" but was absent for the best of reasons: he was, Adam Buss delightedly announced, back at his hotel, caught up in the final stages of securing financial backing for a film he has been waiting eight years to make.

To watch "The Terminal Man" having heard Hodges speak so extensively about his career and methods was to see it afresh. I realized just how much of Hodge's work is about battles against totalitarian authority and how similar many of his ostensibly different movies are. A grubby British gangster film like "Get Carter" appears to have little in common with slick Hollywood science fiction like "The Terminal Man" but, watching those two films within a day of each other, I saw more similarities than differences. Both are about charming but dangerous men who cannot live within the accepted social code. Both follow those men on killing sprees. Both even have the same ending.

Fans of classic films were well-served by the festival. Besides "Get Carter", I saw "Sunrise" and "In a Lonely Place", and could have seen "Psycho", "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "A Shot in the Dark". And those interested in newer films, but not able to attend Britain's larger festivals, could see several preview screenings, from forthcoming Brit flick "In Love with Alma Cogan" to "Turin Horse" from Hungarian art house heavyweight Bela Tarr.

Among the ID Fest audiences, those eager to make movies were as common as those who just wished to watch them. Dozens of would-be stars were to be seen scribbling urgent notes at a series of "professional practice events" hosted by professionals whose practices wannabes would be well-advised to emulate. Paddy Considine, one of the brightest talents in British cinema, lectured on how to direct actors; double Oscar-winner Eve Stewart ("The King's Speech" and "Topsy-Turvy") gave a seminar on advanced production design; and a casting workshop taught aspiring actors how to audition. More festivals should follow this approach: scheduling movies that give future filmmakers inspiration for their art alongside classes that give them lessons in their craft is practically a public service.

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It was the festival's two main events, though, that made it special. On one night, the actor Brian Blessed, probably the greatest living English eccentric, reduced his sold-out audience to red-eyed, ribcage-clutching laughter with his profane and improbable anecdotes. On the next, Professor Sir Christopher Frayling (introduced as "the man who wrote the book on Sergio Leone ... three times") held his audience rapt with an 80-minute celebration of the spaghetti Western. This was followed by a screening of the film Frayling believes is the world's greatest Western, spaghetti or otherwise: "Once Upon a Time in the West". I would not have swapped my seats at either event for seats at any screening at Cannes.

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This isn't to suggest that the festival was an unqualified success. Being scheduled opposite Cannes meant it missed out on most of the press coverage it deserved and, no doubt, some of the guests it invited. And, although the headline speakers were as good as could have been booked, some of those who introduced individual films were well below the standard those films, and their audiences, deserved.

But the important point here is that ID Fest has the right aims, and it is better to shoot at all the right targets and miss a couple than it is to hit any number of wrong ones. The best news announced at the festival was that it is to become an annual event. The second best was that, next year, it will not clash with Cannes. If ID Fest improves as it should, and exploits all its potential, other film festivals will soon worry about clashing with it.

Scott Jordan Harris is a British film critic and sportswriter. He is editor of the books World Film Locations: New York and World Film Locations: New Orleans. He is on Twitter as @ScottFilmCritic. https://twitter.com/#!/ScottFilmCritic

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