Mark Jenkin, independent writer-director, began writing Bait
20 years ago. Set in his native Cornwall, it focuses on tensions between the fishing community and holidaymakers. Its original premise was that it was a 'found-footage' film about a fisherman, who has a brief affair with a rich holidaymaker, later learns she is pregnant and decides to make a video diary of his life so that the child can learn about his dad when he is older. When the fisherman starts filming, he realises that he is no longer living in a fishing village but in a holiday destination. His camera becomes a catalyst for the resentment festering below the surface. People say things on camera that would otherwise remain unspoken.
That film was nearly produced by the BBC 10 years ago, but a key person died and it was shelved. The film we now see, 10 years on, has ditched the love affair while retaining the feel of a found-footage, long-lost film. Instead of the love affair, it taps into something less tangible and much more arresting: a sense of strangeness (Jenkin calls it 'otherness') that is utterly beguiling – and probably unattainable in any other medium but film. The plot has shifted to confrontation on several fronts. One central conflict concerns fishermen brothers Martin and Steven Ward (Edward Rowe and Giles King) who are in a constant state of war.
Steven uses their late father's boat to take well-heeled holidaymakers on sightseeing trips. His brother scrapes a living without a boat by stubbornly fishing from the shore and selling lobster and fish door-to-door. Martin's sense of injustice, coupled with contempt, is intensified when posh London-based incomers, Tim and Sandra Leigh (Simon Shepherd and Mary Woodvine) move into the Ward family home by the quay while he lives on the hilltop housing estate above the town. Meanwhile, the couple's insufferably entitled son Hugo is jealous of his sister Katie's budding romance with Steven's handsome son Neil, who wants to learn the skills of fishing from his uncle rather than try to please the tourists like his father.
is film as we have seldom seen it – an utterly modern take on an almost archaic analogue form, replete with images that are endlessly surprising and often gorgeously abstract. Form and content combine in an almost alchemical way. In form and presentation, Bait
feels part of the same ongoing conflict that propels its story. One formal choice is the use of inserts as flash-forwards.
For example, we are offered puzzling brief glimpses of the handcuffed wrists of a young woman whom we discover much later to be the local barmaid. These inserts occur long before we see the crime, involving throwing a white ball at the tourists' cottage. Such foreshadowing may symbolise that she is already powerless, her fate pre-determined by recession. It also acts as a portent to a greater tragedy still to come, a sense of foreboding that is reinforced when we see the same white ball superimposed on a ghostly moon.
Jenkin shot his film with an old Bolex cine-camera on grainy 16mm black and white film, which he developed by hand in his studio in Newlyn in such a way as to create a print with jagged scratches and shimmering glitches that flit across the screen to mesmerising effect. John Grierson's silent documentary Drifters
(1929) about Britain's North Sea herring industry inevitably springs to mind.
In square frames of stark simplicity, Jenkin, who acts as his own cinematographer, screen writer, editor and composer, shoots in massive close-ups, creating startling montages of hands tying knots against a backdrop of sea and sky, or placing pound notes in a tin marked 'boat'. These are intercut with other hands stacking a holiday cottage fridge with Prosecco, against the backdrop of a newly 'authenticised' fisherman's cottage, complete with nautical faux porthole. In one montage, lobster nets and frothy seas jostle against pasta strainers and cheese graters in a manner reminiscent of some abstract expressionist art.
While occasionally tilting towards caricature, these contrasting juxtapositions escalate the social tensions. And the Soviet/Eisenstein-inspired montage combines with the small-town freakishness and outsider-intrusion gloom of The Wicker Man
to disorienting effect. Bait
plays with several film genres to arrive at its own distinctive stylised visual language for telling its story of fear and loathing in a small fishing village. For example, the 'montage' reference would not work or be at all credible but for the roughness of Jenkin's homemade effects. The choices of which shots to include in the final cut are often subconscious, says Jenkin: 'I often don't know what these montages mean. But I love that. It's like Bresson said: "I want people to feel my films before they understand them".'
Jenkin seems to relish the constraints and possibilities that home-developed celluloid allows. Before ditching any footage he tries to find a place for it, valuing the sheer materiality of the offcuts – and because each roll of film is so expensive. It was through this tactile process of editing and reviewing discarded footage of the barmaid's arrest that he realised a chronological sequence would be less powerful than a flash forward – a discovery he believes he would not have made had he not been shooting on film. A film that draws on so many influences could end up a frustrating mess. But Bait
is an original British work of distinction that is aesthetically innovative and also allows us space to think. While a sense of suspicion and doom infuses the entire film, it is also at times very funny.
Filmed without speech, which, along with all other ambient sounds and music, were added later, Bait
is strikingly alienating. By creating in effect a silent movie to which sound is later added, Jenkin cleverly condenses a century of cinema history and produces an effect akin to the uncanny feeling of a dubbed foreign film. The slightly out of sync post-dubbing of dialogue and (sometimes magnified) sound effects remind us constantly that we are watching fiction.
An additional unintended bonus is that Jenkin also delivers an extended metaphor for the British people's current condition of mutual incomprehension – a kind of 'state of the nation' viewed through a family lens. This sense is carried through even into some of the dubbed dialogue, as when Wenna, the young barmaid who will go on to throw the white ball, claims not to understand what the posh girls are saying. They must be German, she thinks, with their 'ja, ja, jas'.