I always wanted to make a film about the fishing industry. 16mm, black & white, dirty, full of grain, faces, working hands, the rough edges, warts and all, wild, tangible, real. It actually ended up being a film about change. The inevitability of change, but also, as the promise of a new bright future is being ushered in, who is thinking about what is being lost, forgotten, and ultimately yearned for? Bait is a film where form and content are inextricably intertwined. It’s also a film that changed everything for me.
The prevalent mode of psychologically focused rural drama in British narrative cinema – seen in Clio Barnard’s Dark River (2017), Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country (2017) and Paul Wright’s supernaturally tinged For Those in Peril (2013), to name a few – tends towards impressionistic realism, emphasising the concrete everyday world and characters’ often melancholic interiority in roughly equal measure. Bait, a first feature by Cornish writer-director Mark Jenkin, is a striking departure from this norm: it deals in no-nonsense terms with starkly abrasive emotional registers; it roots its narrative in a specific socioeconomic experience and accompanying set of conflicts; and it flouts the familiar codes of non-demonstrative British realism by assertively highlighting its own filmic qualities and its makers’ defiantly samizdat stance.
Bait is proudly described by its producers as a ‘handmade feature film’ – and for once this isn’t run-of-the-mill faux-guerrilla rhetoric. Jenkin’s methods here are very much in keeping with the ‘Silent Landscape Dancing Grain 13’ manifesto he devised in 2012. Its rules include shooting on small-gauge film, silently, in black and white; post-synching sound; ‘subverting or ignoring genre constraints’; and – perhaps most important and most artistically stimulating, and certainly most pragmatically English-sounding – working ‘with a minimal degree of fuss’. While unmistakably Dogme-esque, the manifesto is hardly dogmatic: the final, 13th rule stipulates that filmmakers should break one of the previous 12.
Not explicitly stated in the manifesto but certainly central to Jenkin’s own practice and ethic, is the imperative of localism. Working with a Cornwall-based cast and crew and operating in partnership with the School of Film and Television at Falmouth University, Jenkin shot and processed his feature himself. He filmed it in Charlestown and the Penzance area on 16mm black-and-white Kodak stock with a 1976 wind-up Bolex camera, and used unconventional processing materials including coffee, washing soda and vitamin C powder.
This approach, imprinting Jenkin’s authorial signature directly into the grain of the film, yields consistently extraordinary effects: scratches, little tempests of spots on the image, flashes of solarisation. Along with copious inserts of familiar things that take on a heightened objet trouvé quality (handcuffs, scuffed boots, fish heads on a plate), there are also images that are more conventionally aesthetic but nonetheless strikingly beautiful, framed as they are in an otherwise everyday context: dense banks of cloud on the horizon; the carved wooden faces that decorate the local pub; a young man crouched on the beach in rain gear, sky and sea behind him, which might almost have come out of another study of a fishing community, Visconti’s great neorealist drama La terra trema (1948).
The visual textures are matched by an idiosyncratic approach to rhythm. Working as his own editor, Jenkin favours a staccato style, cutting in discrete inserts (close-ups of ropes, nets, walls and other surfaces); intercutting conversations, to disorienting effect; or shuffling between separate events, notably the pub scene in which fisherman Martin makes spoilt urban teen Hugo Leigh repair the lobster pot he has damaged, alongside glimpses of Hugo’s sister Katie and her boyfriend, and of Hugo’s dad Tim sipping white wine. The post-synched sound is also aggressively anti-realist from the very start: listen to the insistent beat of Martin’s angry footsteps as they resonate against a background of silence, or the exaggeratedly amplified scrape of the thread used on the lobster pot. Elsewhere, more conventionally realist sound concisely sketches in social context: the middle-class background hum of BBC Radio 4 news in the Leigh household.
Jenkin’s heightened visual textures resemble the practice of Ben Rivers and Guy Maddin, but to different effect; where Rivers transforms documentary images to make them uncanny, and Maddin fondly, comically exaggerates the look of antique celluloid, Jenkin’s style is ostensibly at odds with subject matter rooted in the contemporary everyday. His theme is gentrification and the hostilities that have built up as Cornwall’s coastal communities have shifted from a fishing economy to one based on tourism. Protagonist Martin is at odds with his brother, seeing his use of their father’s fishing boat for tourist trips as capitulation to the visitor invasion – for him it is demeaning both to the family heritage and to the community. The brothers’ old home has been bought by well-off Londoners the Leighs, incomers who have transformed this coastal property into a kitsch fetishisation of itself, filled with nautical trimmings (‘All ropes and chains,’ complains Martin. ‘Looks a bit like a sex dungeon’). The Leighs – the males, at least – understand little about the place they have colonised, and the same goes for their paying guests; a hipster dad, presumably down from London, rages about fishing boats waking him at 7am – though Tim’s wife Sandra quickly sets him right about people’s need to make a living. Jenkin’s satirical bile reaches its peak in a sequence involving a boatload of stag-party revellers, one man dressed from head to foot as a giant penis (the humour is effective in its counterintuitive understatement, with the tableau seen from afar).
While built around an extended flashback, Jenkin’s narrative doesn’t obviously call for the complex structure he has created, which occasionally teases us with disrupted chronology. A brief flash-forward to a nocturnal incident that sees barmaid Wenna arrested feels superfluous, and Hugo’s eventual face-off with Martin’s nephew Neil seems almost arbitrary as a dramatic payoff. Arguably, the depiction of this milieu did not really require decisive events, and a more fluid, relaxed approach might have served Jenkin’s purposes just as well. What both narrative and style achieve, however, is an energy that keeps us watching closely from shot to shot, where a more conventional execution might have encouraged us to relax into the flow of events. As it is, we are never less than fully awake and engaged, both in the action and in the social strains it depicts. Jenkin’s tension-generating approach has elements of a western – the lobster-pot showdown is executed with a flavour of Sergio Leone, though the threat of violent confrontation is defused by the comical bathos of Hugo’s enforced needlework. The editing style also creates the fragmented dynamism of a graphic novel, with individual images (the studies of objects, the extreme close-ups of lead actor Edward Rowe) having the self-contained force of comic-book frames. In addition, the post-synched dialogue, seemingly attached to its speakers rather than emanating from them, brings to mind the effect evoked by sound theorist Michel Chion in his comments on the Italian post-synching style of Fellini et al, in which recorded dialogue effectively takes on the status of speech balloons.
Ensuring continuity through all the dislocation are strong acting and a witty, sometimes scabrous script, as when Chloe Endean’s winningly acerbic Wenna muses on posh Katie and her local date: ‘How’s she going to suck his dick with that plum in her mouth?’ Similarly, in an imposing lead performance, actor and comedian Rowe will often wryly undercut his scowling man-mountain persona with a sharp one-liner.
There is no escaping a degree of caricature, both in the casting – the supercilious ‘now look here’ tones of Simon Shepherd’s Tim – and the shorthand approach to the Leighs’ M&S lifestyle, from shots of their fridgeful of blueberries and prosecco to Tim’s absurd Lycra sportswear. However, this does not compromise the film’s protest against a Britain that has become a theme-park version of itself at the cost of local communities’ economic and cultural survival. Counterpointing the ethnographic and the touristic, Bait encourages us to question what we expect to see in supposedly authentic filmed depictions of life outside cities. Setting itself at a decisive and spikily pugnacious distance from the often reassuringly lyrical British vein that might be termed ‘sensitive ruralism’, it comes across as a sustained manifesto for the potential dissident force of a new photochemical underground.
Jonathan Romney, Sight and Sound, September 2019
Director: Mark Jenkin
©: Early Day Films
An Early Day Films production
Produced with the support of the: Falmouth University School of Film and Television
Executive Producers: Kate Byers, Linn Waite
Produced by: Kate Byers, Linn Waite
Associate Producer: Denzil Monk
Production Manager: Maria McEwan
Production Accountant: Novenka Bailey
1st Assistant Director: Callum Mitchell
Script Supervisor: Callum Mitchell
Written by: Mark Jenkin
Director of Photography: Mark Jenkin
Lighting Camera: Colin Holt
Focus Puller: Michael Eddy
Production Stills: Thom Axon, Steve Tanner
Film Editor: Mark Jenkin
Production Designer: Mae Voogd
Graphic Design: Dion Star
Props Master: Joe Gray
Costume Supervisor: Maria McEwan
Film Scan: Kodak Film Lab London
Sound: Daniel Thompson
Foley Artist: Stephanie Roy
In Memory of: Laura Hardman, John Goodfellow
Edward Rowe (Martin Ward)
Mary Woodvine (Sandra Leigh)
Giles King (Steven Ward)
Simon Shepherd (Tim Leigh)
Chloe Endean (Wenna Kowalski)
Janet Thirlaway (Mrs Peters)
Isaac Woodvine (Neil Ward)
Martin Ellis (Billy Ward)
Jowan Jacobs (Hugo Leigh)
Georgia Ellery (Katie Leigh)
Molly Hawkins (Sophie)
Linn Waite (Sophie’s mum)
Lewis Grimshaw (William)
Stacey Guthrie (Liz Stewart)
Jake Clutson (Harry)
Mae Voogd (wife)
Morgan Val Baker (husband)
Enys Val Baker (baby)
Kate Byers (Wenna’s mum)
Tristan Sturrock (Brian Rikard)
Michael Eddy (stag doer)
Samuel Brenton (Barnaby)
Siobhan Ditchman (Zara)
MARK JENKIN’S THE CINEMATIC DNA OF ENYS MEN
Walkabout + Oss Oss Wee Oss
Sun 1 Jan 13:10; Mon 9 Jan 20:30
The Stone Tape + Journey to Avebury
Mon 2 Jan 15:40
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
Wed 4 Jan 18:30; Sat 28 Jan 16:15
Symptoms + Stigma
Fri 6 Jan 18:10; Sun 15 Jan 15:30
Lost Highway + Jaunt
Fri 6 Jan 20:15; Sun 22 Jan 18:10
Haunters of the Deep + The Living and the Dead Episode 2
Sun 8 Jan 13:20; Sat 14 Jan 20:40
Long Weekend + Between the Tides
Tue 10 Jan 18:20; Mon 23 Jan 20:30
Penda’s Fen + A Warning to the Curious
Wed 11 Jan 17:50
Two Years at Sea + A Portrait of Ga
Sat 14 Jan 18:00 (+ intro and Q&A with Mark Jenkin and Ben Rivers); Tue 24 Jan 20:45
Daguerréotypes + World of Glory
Sun 15 Jan 12:00 (+ intro by Mark Jenkin); Thu 26 Jan 20:50
Sun 15 Jan 18:00; Mon 30 Jan 20:50
Requiem for a Village + The Signalman
Fri 27 Jan 18:20; Tue 31 Jan 20:40
Berberian Sound Studio + Wind
Sun 29 Jan 15:30 (+ intro by Mark Jenkin and Peter Strickland); Tue 31 Jan 18:10
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