by Georgina Allan
“The more you shout, rant and rage, the more you expose the contradictions of your existence.”
It’s been a wild couple of years for Mark Jenkin. His BAFTA award-winning film Bait premiered in Berlin in February 2019. At the time, nobody could have predicted the film would go on to achieve such universal acclaim and box office success.
On the surface, Bait is a film about two Cornish fishermen who are trying to keep their traditional way of life alive in a place that's being rebranded as a tourist destination. But as Mark himself says: “really, it's not about that.” Bait has sparked conversations about tourism, Brexit, and gentrification.
Mark says he’s realised through audiences what the film represents; “it’s a story about entitlement and the tension that rises when people feel they're entitled to something that conflicts with people who think they're entitled to something different, specially within a very small community”.
Now with a global pandemic looming overhead, discussions over the film industry, tourism and inequality has led many back to Mark and his film. He is very modest about his work, noting the current topicality of Bait down to luck rather than its universal themes and effective storytelling, and his self-sufficiency has made him able to keep shooting on film for music videos.
During lockdown last year for ISSUE #7: SOLITUDE, we caught up with Mark to discuss his limitations, the failure of the government, and the power of local communities.
The way you developed the film was in a self-imposed solitude. Do you enjoy working in isolation?
Bait was the longest shoot I've ever done. It was really intense, with a hardworking crew who were very tired by the end and for half the shoot we were all living away together. By the end, I was ready for it to stop and get on with the post-production but what I didn't realise is that I really went off a cliff. I went from people around me all the time to then being in this studio with 130 rolls of film.
The reality was I was making a film that I didn't know how it was going to turn out. I think most people who do anything creative fluctuate between thinking ‘this is the best thing a human has ever created’ and two seconds later, ‘this is worthless shit nobody is ever going to watch’. The thing is to try and mentally sit in the middle of both because the highs and lows are both as damaging.
I think solitude is something I'm very attracted to but it was also something I probably went to my limits of. People talk as if I made the film on my own, which I didn't, but the processing was something nobody could help with. When the 130th roll came out and every roll seemed to have decent pictures on it, I probably shed a tear of relief that period was over.
Do you enjoy the limitations and the experimentation shooting on film gives?
The limitations are everything for me. It's why I don't really engage with the digital side of shooting. Even though I shoot on film, it ends up being digital but I'm not interested in shooting digitally. It’s not because I'm a film snob or I'm necessarily against the digital aesthetic, it's just I find it too overwhelming. The technical possibilities are endless and means I'm never thinking particularly creatively. Knowing there's only certain things I can do technically, means I then have to make my creative decisions limitless.
I'm never happier than having one roll of Super 8 and a Super 8 camera. The cost of Super 8 now is crazy and it's a two and half minutes roll of film, straight away I'm not going to waste a single frame of it. They're huge limitations, but they're huge practical limitations, they're not creative limitations so that's the purest form of filmmaking for me.
The main character of Martin speaks to a lot of different themes. How do you view him and how did you form his personality?
The first working draft I had was in 2002 and I was writing somebody my age which would have been 26 so he was significantly younger than he ended up being in the film. I could only write that character as if it was me and a conduit for my thoughts and opinions. Rather than mellowing into old age, the hotheadedness of youth remained and that's where the character became interesting.
Then Edd Rowe was cast, the character gets handed over to him which is a really interesting part of the process. Edd brought a level of humour to it because he's a stand-up comic and a greater level of tragedy so that character became something much greater than I'd ever written because of his input.
For Martin, he's just almost entirely flaws and contradictions, like most humans are. The more you shout, rant and rage, the more you expose the contradictions of your existence. He rails against the tourist trade and his brother taking money from tourists and how undignified that is, but it's made clear, although he's catching a handful of fish in order to save up money to buy a boat, he goes and sells his fish at the pub. He's just as involved in the tourist trade as his brother so there's underlying contradictions between what he says verbally and his actions.
The film is suggested to be set in a small coastal town in Cornwall but it can be representative of so many coastal towns, and it's taken you 20 years to make. How do you see those coastal towns changing in the next 20 years?
There's bigger things to think about in the short term, like making sure people stay alive and healthy but recently it's become much more relevant again and actually part of the same issue for me.
I live in a little community in Cornwall and I think the success of dealing with things on a local level, compared with the absolute clusterfuck at national level, has made me really double down on my belief that having agency within small communities is the future. We live in an incredibly unfair society and the ones at the bottom of the pile economically are always the ones that are shat on first in the time of a crisis like this.
How do you see the arts changing after the pandemic?
I think the government don't seem to give a flying fuck about the arts in this country. If you compare other European countries with the rescue packages they've given to the arts, there is a greater level of intelligence in terms of what the arts give. But we've got a government of utter… I would say fuckwits but it's too simple, just people who are obsessed with money, who don't see the value in anything unless it's got an immediate financial return.
I've got massive faith in humanity, I've got absolutely no confidence in the people who are running this country and maybe the whole shitshow just needs to fall down around so we can start again. It’d be lovely to have a government who understands the importance of the arts, who talk about the arts in the same way they talk up other things.
BAIT is released on Blu-ray/DVD by the BFI and available to stream on BFI Player (Subscription service)
Ge Allan is the Film Editor of the Radical Art Review