The Cornish are often condescended to onscreen, represented as folksy, even aggressive and primitive, through films like Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971). But in Mark Jenkin’s Bait it is the locals who are under attack, their traditions under fire by a relentless tourist economy and a permeating sense of outsider privilege.
Premiering in the Forum section of last month’s Berlinale, the Cornish fishing drama was described by the Notebook as “employ[ing] the cinema of the past to tell of the aggravated Brexit present.” Through the gorgeous grain of its 16mm photography, Bait has the visual texture of a 1960s industrial film, while the immediacy of Jenkin’s bold close-ups bind us to recognizable British archetypes, and the jarring editing provides a dislocation which mirrors its characters’ own. Jenkin’s technique distorts time to create a sense of an eternal, cyclical struggle.
It tells the tale of Martin (Edward Rowe), a Cornish fisherman trying to save up for a boat, who is foiled at each turn by the acquiescence of his hometown and even his brother to the tourist trade. This is is crystalized by a family of rich Londoners who have bought his family home and have turned it into a rental.
Bait is a funny, satisfying, and deeply angry film that takes the temperature of the current British social climate and offers few easy solutions, taking an all-too-familiar story about gentrification and turning it into a desperate struggle of mythic proportions.
I spoke to Mark Jenkin about Bait, about his distinctive style, filmmaking in his own community, and why anything can be a Brexit film.
NOTEBOOK: The first thing that jumps out about Bait is the style and intensely restricted viewpoint. How did you go about visualizing the town and bringing it to life?
MARK JENKIN: I don’t go into anything until I've got a huge list of limitations to work within, because where I shape all of the work is within what I'm not able to do. Working at small budgets helps because you've got a huge limitation straight away so you have to start working in different ways. Not everybody has that luxury of a low budget, which is why some people make such terrible films.
The town is a composite of three different locations and then several other interiors. It’s not a single place. It was a composite out of necessity rather than design. Which is handy because we can’t be accused of making a film that's an issue in a specific town, we can’t piss off any locals who feel like we’re commenting on their way of life. It becomes an allegorical space as much as anything.
NOTEBOOK: The whole film feels like a study of faces. Did you have a specific approach to that portraiture?
JENKIN: We create a language and a way of working around what we’re able to do. There were angles we couldn’t shoot. Which was great because you think, “we can only shoot in this direction,” so you can throw away the idea of doing any establishing shots after that, so it becomes a film of close-ups, which is a prominent aesthetic within the film. I love the power of the montage and I love the fact that the one unique property of film as an art form is the close-up, so it’s crazy not to use it!
If you’re working on a small budget you have to be alive to what you’ve got to use that’s free. And once you’ve cast it, you’ve got these amazing expressive faces, so if someone has a beautiful face, an interesting face, an ugly face, whatever that might be—I like to see that on screen! So I give them big, Academy-ratio close-ups, which works great for people’s faces.
NOTEBOOK: You shoot on set without sound—how does that affect how you behave with the actors?
JENKIN: It’s never discussed. Although the actual words they say at the moment disappear into the wind, they really are captured because the eyes do more of the talking than the voice does. The performance is set in that moment. When they come in and re-voice it months later, I used to think you could make them change the performance, but you can’t change a close-up.
If they’ve said it in a way with their eyes, if you try to make them change the pace or intonation, it creates quite an interesting effect, but it’s unnatural. It’s always the same actor who voices their own performance, so they say the line in the same way, they look at their face saying it and then repeat it. Nine out of ten times its absolutely bang on.
NOTEBOOK: With faces doing the talking and your use of non-actors, I felt the influence of Bresson: people as figures.
JENKIN: Bresson is never far from my thinking. I’m from the Scorsese school of if you’re stuck, ask yourself what Bresson would do because he would always choose the most simple thing. And I think that when I’m writing, I write visually. I write a scene and imagine it as five shots, but can I do it in four, three? I’m always simplifying, and that’s where Bresson is with me. But the kind of montage way that I like to work is probably something that he would have disapproved of quite vehemently because it’s too impressionistic for his Catholic tastes.
But in the performance and simplicity, a lot of it is built out of the limitations in how I work with the camera. I’m working with a [Bolex 16mm] that needs a finger holding down the shutter, so one hand is always busy when the camera’s running. I can either pull focus or move the tripod head. So you never get a shot where I move camera and pull focus. There’s a real austerity in that which has something in common with what he did, but in a different way.
NOTEBOOK: How did you first come to find this style?
JENKIN: People tell me I’m making horror films without any horror in. You know,The Shout , the British horror film with John Hurt? That’s my thing, using the form, not invisibly. But making something where the horror exists in the edits as much as the content of the shots.
I think it was born out of the practical limitations I put upon myself. Limitation of shooting 100 foot, 2 ½ minute rolls. It’s expensive, so you can’t be too extravagant. I shoot no coverage, so sometimes when it comes to the edit I haven’t got enough footage to put a scene together so I’ll grab stuff from elsewhere and I might flash forward or back in the story to make a scene work.
Sometimes I wonder if the content should be at the mercy of the shortcomings of the form, but then I think it’s silly to ignore the fact that film has a very distinct form that should influence and affect the content. In this country we get so much film that just looks like filmed theatre. Because the shortcomings and potential of the form hasn’t been engaged.
NOTEBOOK: You set up a lot of information early on through imagery you later return to. Was that planned, or another way to fill in the blanks?
JENKIN: It’s planned randomization. When I’m writing I see every single shot. I shoot the exact shot list I have written. I leave nothing to chance. But the brilliant thing about how I work with the camera is if I get to 95 feet and I need 10 for the next shot on the list, I will use 5 feet to find something on offer in the location and grab a quick cutaway or two.
For example, with the pub scenes in Bait there’s all these figureheads. I was shooting and needed to change the roll, so I spun around, saw them looking at me, shot them, and that’s how they ended up in the film.
That's how that shot of handcuffs goes in. Once it's there it becomes something greater than its literal meaning. If it was in the scene of [Wenna, played by Chloe Endean] getting arrested, that would just be information saying she's having handcuffs put on. But [shown] earlier in the film, and in a position where she's arguing with somebody, it has another meaning. You know her fate already, so she can shout all she wants to this bloke, but her destiny, because of who she is, where she lives, who are parents, and what has standing is in the community, she's already fucked.
But I wouldn’t have had the shot if I hadn’t been shooting on film and got to 95 feet and thought, actually let’s get this quick cutaway. Maybe it's something that comes over you when you’re thinking creatively; there’s some reason why I filmed those figureheads and the handcuffs. There’s always something there on a film shoot, you just have to put your hand out. The angels of happenstance will be there to help you through it.
NOTEBOOK: That goes back to your idea of restriction as being liberating in itself
JENKIN: Yeah, it is. And you almost get to talking about authoritarian politics [laughs]. You have your freedom taken away and suddenly you don’t have to worry anymore. Not to take that out of context, but without having to worry about this or that you can get on with the living of it.
NOTEBOOK: So was that local community a necessary part of the process for you?
JENKIN: I’m trying to make films about things that aren’t often talked about and are considered unimportant. So if we come in and act in a way that isn’t in keeping with the way that our main character would see the world then that’s not a good way to be working.
At one point down by the harbor—when Martin confronts the people who now own his home, he shouts about them as incomers who stopped him being able to live in the way that he must in order to work—we had a member of the crew shouting over to some people on the other side the harbor to get out of the shot. They happened to be locals, so we did have to bring out the Irony Klaxon by telling local members of the community to stop living their life in order for us as outsiders to come in and make a film about someone who... [Laughs.] It just brought it home that we’re not a big film crew who rolls into town, buys everybody off.
This is my place and these are my people. I want to walk down the harbor and not be thought of as “that wanker who makes films about us that aren’t very accurate.”
NOTEBOOK: How do you feel about the potential that as Bait goes into the wider world, it will be embraced by a cinephile community largely made up of the same demographic that you criticize in the film?
JENKIN: That’s been an issue all along, for the twenty years I’ve been trying to make Bait. Sometimes we would try to get in touch with producers of public funding bodies who were impossible to get ahold of in the summer. Then I started thinking, I wonder where they are, they’re probably here [in Penzance]! There I am trying to get a call in London, and they’re probably 200 meters away in a holiday cottage or in their family holiday home.
But I hope the film isn’t black and white on that issue. [Martin] is refusing to work on the boat with his brother because he’s out there taking out holidaymakers. Instead, he says he’ll just catch fish off the beach in a throw and hand net and earn honest money that way.
NOTEBOOK: He’s a martyr…
JENKIN: He is, but it’s not that simple. Because when he catches those four fish he’s got to sell, he goes to the pub and sells the fish to a local woman who owns the pub who pays over the odds to him because he’s caught them on the local beach and she knows she can mark them up in price, and then they get sold to holidaymakers. So really, what’s the difference between what him and his brother are doing?
But even the Airbnb guests aren’t bad. They’ve been sold a lie. They’ve been sold a silent picture on a website of a beautiful harbor. You don’t get to click on a picture and hear the seagulls or boats. There’s no Smell-O-Vision, no diesel and fish guts. So they’ve been sold a lie.
But I can’t control how people feel about the movie, and we all project ourselves onto it. Your insecurities might come out when you see yourself or people you know projected on screen, but I know a lot of people who are part-timers down here and I haven’t witnessed anybody getting upset of affronted by anything I say in my film.
Sometimes you get paranoia from local people, especially if they’re involved in the tourist trade, people say, “you can’t say that!” But it’s a self-censoring thing that they feel. When push comes to shove they’re the same people who lose their shit, because they don't have a voice and they aren’t discussing the problems associated with living in a tourist service economy.
NOTEBOOK: How do you feel that Bait fits into the canon of Cornish cinema?
JENKIN: I don’t see [all films set in Cornwall] as Cornish cinema. That’s not to say it has to be made in Cornwall by Cornish people to be a Cornish film, but I think a lot of films in the past set in Cornwall are about somebody coming into Cornwall in crisis which is crystalized by being in a rural place full of real people who are archetypal at best, mostly stereotypes. And they will, through the sum of their parts, make this newcomer see the error of their ways, they’ll adjust their worldview and head home.
That can be done brilliantly, like in Local Hero . But a lot of films outside of the urban setting use their rural settings for background color. And what I’m interested in is bringing that to the foreground, because it’s been seen less. It’s one of the only things I can write about because it’s what I know. But I think if you can create those authentic, complex, flawed people, I think that’s the Cornish cinema I want to see. And any kind of regional or national cinema that brings out the reality.
The more specific you get with something the more universal it becomes. A Bayesian woman who’s dad was a fisherman came up to me after a screening in Berlin and she said, “That was his life.” The other side of the ocean, nothing I know about, but it's the issues people face. I started twenty years ago with a small comment about a small issue specific to where I lived, but now the gap between the haves and have nots has become a huge talking point. In some way it's become an allegory for the world, and as I saw in Berlin it became a Brexit allegory.
NOTEBOOK: How do you feel about the Brexit analogies?
JENKIN: Well, it only happened because on the final day of sound mix one scene had too much dead sound. So [producer] Kate Byers wrote a current affairs feature about chlorinated Chicken, which we recorded straight onto the film, which I matched with a shot of these fresh fish being handed over. It was too good to ignore. But when it went to Berlinale, the subtitlers included the news report which gave it a prominence which wasn’t there to me.
NOTEBOOK: Maybe like the pick-up shots, it was subconscious.
JENKIN: If we had premiered in the U.K. without those subtitles, those early reviews might not have mentioned Brexit. So it picked up all this momentum, and people saw that in it. I think you’re right that it was in it, but I think it's often the context of where and when you watch it. It’s about fishing for God’s sake, the foreground of Brexit. And fisherman have been forgotten about again, but when they’re helpful for either side they were very prominent.
NOTEBOOK: Do you think that “Brexit cinema” exists or is it an easy label?
JENKIN: I think it's difficult to tell until the dust has settled and the context has moved on. Maybe we’ll look back and work out what a Brexit film is. Is Ray and Liz a Brexit film? Is The Kid Who Would Be King, shot in Cornwall, a Brexit film because it’s about reconciliation and people getting over their differences to unite? Somebody referred to Bait as the “New British Strange” and I like the idea of that as a new art movement while we’re in this unsteady ground. People have asked if the film is “Leave” or “Remain”—which is handy for me where I live because I can walk around the harbor without getting thrown in! [Laughs.]