The grit and grain of a fisherman’s dying trade

Speaking recently about his new film, Bait, British director Mark Jenkin raised the point that even though the art form is only 120-years-old, the lack of experimentation in commercial filmmaking seems to indicate the discussion on what the form should be has already ended. He believes it to be especially true of Britain, where directors like Jenkin are side-lined and categorised as ‘experimental’ filmmakers. It’s a simple point well-made and it highlights the belief that films not sticking to a standardised aesthetic will struggle to find a wider audience.

The techniques used in Bait will do little to challenge preconceived ideas about what is and isn’t ‘experimental’, as Jenkin used a 1970s 16mm wind-up Bolex camera to shoot on black and white Kodak film which he also hand-processed. It’s that type of manual physicality that has given his work to date a tangible sense of reality, with a number set around the culture clash generated between the coastal tourist trade and traditional working class ways of life. His latest focusses on those ideas once more, setting the story in a small Cornish fishing cove in a film filled with the grit and grain of the fishing industry and a real sense of the people who sustain it.

Jenkin’s film tells the story of Martin (Edward Rowe), a gruff local fisherman without a boat to his name. His brother, Steven (Giles King), now uses their father’s boat for daytime tourist cruises, a decision that has caused a divide between the two, although his son, Neil (Isaac Woodvine), is keen to help his uncle’s sparse fishing trade. Martin scratches around catching small numbers of fish in nets laid before the tide comes in, hoping to save enough to buy a new vessel. Much to his anger, their old family home is now owned by middle-class Londoners, who along with a growing number of holiday homes, are displacing the local community.

Shot in a boxy 4:3 ratio, Jenkin chose to use a traditional approach to tell the story of old versus new as seen through the eyes of man determined to hang onto his family heritage. Intermittently we jump forward or backwards to unseen events, which may at first appear mysterious but eventually fall into place. Martin’s narrative eventually heads towards a tragedy built on the simmering tensions between locals and visiting holidaymakers, and by the time we reach that moment of devastation it feels as if everything has been painstakingly constructed to get us there, despite the film’s raw presentation.

While Rowe’s inexperience shows itself at times, it doesn’t feel out of place within the rough edges of the film itself. He’s well cast as a fishermen representative of a centuries old tradition that is quickly losing its voice in times of austerity. The tourist trade has always existed in the town but an influx of second-home owners is modernising the small community in unwelcome ways. This is what makes Jenkin’s use of such retro techniques so intriguing, as similar transformations are happening right now in modern cinema. In many ways, Martin’s fight to uphold his family’s historical way of life can be seen as a metaphor for the struggle traditional filmmakers face in today’s digital age, a group which Jenkin is very much part of.  

Through some sharp editing (Jenkin also acts as editor and cinematographer) the film finds its own unique rhythm and sense of place. Some great examples of this include the overlapping of two heated conversations on opposite sides of the room, and later, the juxtaposition of a quiet, but uneasy family meal and a tense showdown in the local pub. The 16mm stock looks terribly beat up in places, fading and flickering in and out of view, but it serves to enhance the dense, foggy atmosphere. You can almost feel the heft of the town’s anicent bricks and mortar and the weight of their history bearing down on Martin’s shoulders.

The sound design is just as earthy as the visuals, with the dialogue synced to roughly match the onscreen conversations, although, as they are largely centred on Martin, the exchanges remain brief and monosyllabic. Just as importantly, despite Jenkin’s dismay (he still lives in Cornwall) he offers some empathy to the outsiders, perhaps understanding they are more a symptom of a wider problem, rather than the actual cause. Similar to how his own film takes inspiration from a range of classic cinematic sources, there are a number of reasons why the region he is so attached to is being affected. That said, he isn’t letting them off the hook completely and he’ll continue to be a disrupter that protects established ways of life, both on and off-screen.

Bait opens in select UK cinemas on August 30.

Steven Sheehan

Updated: Aug 27, 2019

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