by Ge Allan
"On a small wind-up lens sputtering in black and white, Jenkin's Cornwall debut puts a spotlight on the ramifications of gentrification and the modern British tourism industry"
Mark Jenkin's debut feature has made proverbial waves amongst cinephiles and your local fishermen alike. A beautifully visioned small-town drama, shot in 16mm black and white on a windup camera, and processed by the director himself. With sound post-synced, it emulates the cinema of a lifetime ago from a resonant, modern viewpoint.
We follow fisherman Martin: down and out, without a boat and stubbornly refusing to engage with the burgeoning tourism industry in his Cornish fishing village. His brother has given in, shipping out visitors to see a slice of the British coastline, stag dos and all.
But Martin refuses to join him, despite his lack of money. He is angry that he’s had to give away his family home to rich expats who arrive yearly and rent out the renovated Fisherman’s attic; angry that his few daily line-caught fish only provide him with the meagre amount to save for a new boat; angry that the second homers invade his life and put up faux-fishing decorations where his father’s ghost still remains.
It is in this tension between the locals and visitors - of how each earns their living, and who survives or thrives - from which the film's story bubbles up. Amidst the wider issues of Cornwall’s gentrification, and the struggle of surviving in a trade that has been romanticised and industrialised, we watch a very English kitchen sink drama unfold, shot in the rich grain of the film stock.
Coffee, washing powder and vitamin C
Much of the attraction of the film is seeing such a traditional film style reproduced. While the story and its strong viewpoint are endearing, success may not have followed the film had it been shot in digital colour. The tone is odd, with very stilted acting and the post sync sound of their recited script only adding to this feeling of dissonance between the film’s style and its 16mm aesthetic.
But there is a positive to this juxtaposition. We expect philosophical epithets to echo out of characters’ mouths shot in such beautiful textured black and white. Instead we see these characters getting into slanging matches, telling each other to fuck off in the local pub and diverging into a thick Cornish tongue.
Issues of authenticity would mar another production. Just as the rich tourists aim for a fisherman’s cottage aesthetic in their holiday homes, so too could the film be accused of trying to attract viewers with the ‘authenticity’ of 16mm Kodak stock. Shot on a wind-up camera, the arthouse crowd are fervently cooing over the look of this film.
The director has managed to traverse this by producing a truly homegrown affair. Jenkin grew up in Cornwall; he processed the film himself, using coffee grounds, washing powder and Vitamin C effervescent tablets as developers, and had his producers appear as small parts in the movie. Each roll of film is barely 3 minutes long and takes two hours to develop. The creation of this film was a passionate and lengthy undertaking.
There is a contemporary bourgeois ideal of reverting back to traditional practices to achieve something of lesser quality, but Jenkin avoids accusations of being a ‘hipster wanker’, saying with a Cornish drawl, ’I don’t think you would go through this for the sake of an image’.
Tourism's toxic legacy
Instead, he aims to capture the truth of being a modern day fisherman: not romantically surfing the waves serving fresh fish to his family everyday, but one who has lost his livelihood, who catches six fish a day, two of which are generously hung on his neighbour's doors, the rest given to the local pub and served to tourists. Meanwhile, the second homers’ children drink the local pub dry and refuse the locals use of the pool table, and a young couple rent a refurnished fisherman's attic while complaining about the noise of the dock work in the morning.
The film stock crackles and flares at its most tense points. Flash forwards tell us of angry outbreaks to come and the grain of the film provides the characters with a depth they’re acting chops are possibly unable to create in reality. The sound is also key to this affecting nature. We hear the deep groans of boats, the braying of the sea and echoing songs lilting into the foreground and fading again, with the post-syncing leaving them slightly off the film’s beat.
Jenkin also makes use of the beauty of close-ups: hands tying rope knots, mending lobster pots, sharing expensive wine or cheap beer. However, Jenkin’s film is ultimately about place and community rather than an aesthetic endeavour.
Painting, albeit, with a broad brush, he puts a spotlight on the ramifications of gentrification and the modern British tourism industry. Our protagonist Martin is not a working class hero. His stubbornness and aggression stops him from accepting the nuances of the current climate, estranging him from his family, and drawing resentment from others.
It is up to us to see that these economic ecosystems aren’t sustainable if we wish to crowd our idealised, bucolic coastline while keeping the riches for ourselves. Jenkin shows this all through that small wind-up lens sputtering in black and white, surely an epic task that needs repeating.
Mark Jenkin's 'Bait' (2019) is showing across the UK. Find out more about your nearest screening.
Ge Allan is the Film Editor for The Radical Art Review