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Nailing a DIY Debut: Mark Jenkin’s Bait

By Ali Moosavi.

In the old days, in most cases the decision to whether to shoot a film in colour or black and white was determined by budget and economics. These days, it is mostly an aesthetic one, selected by the director, sometimes in consultation with the cinematographer. Black and white, long associated with classic forties film noir, strips away much of a film’s glamour and provides it with a gritty, realistic, almost documentary look. As the late, great Sam Fuller famously quipped in Wim Wenders’ The State of Things (1982), “Life is in colour, but black and white is more realistic.” Shooting in B&W also poses the risk of the film being labelled pretentious. In his astounding feature film debut (at the age of 43), Bait (2019), British film maker Mark Jenkin has not only shot in B&W but used 16mm film stock instead of going digital, and then hand processed it to give it an old, grainy, scratched look, as though it is a newly discovered old silent film.

One of the most vocal challengers to auteur theory (or authorship) is the recently departed, twice Oscar winner William Goldman. In his classic book, Adventures in the Screen Trade, on auteur theory he quips “Maybe Truffaut designs his own sets and possibly Fellini operates his own camera and conceivably Kurosawa edits every inch of the films he directs. But I know this: It sure as shit isn’t true in Hollywood!” He cites Jaws (1975) as an example, stating that Peter Benchley wrote the novel, Carl Gottlieb did the screenplay, Bill Butler photographed it, Verna Fields did the editing and John Williams composed the music. Goldman asks, “How in the world is Steven Spielberg the author of that?”. Well, dearly departed Mr. Goldman, it seems that in Britain we do have a genuine, bona fide auteur who would even satisfy your very strict criteria. Mark Jenkin wrote, directed, photographed, edited and composed the music for Bait. He even hand processed the negative!

Bait is set in a seaside fishing village in Cornwall, south of England. Martin (Edward Rowe) and his brother Steven (Giles King) are fishermen who have fallen on hard times. Their once fishing village is now a tourist spot where most locals have disbanded their fishing trade in favour of offering various services to the seasonal tourists. The two brothers have had to sell their family home to the Leigh family. A rich, out of town family who only use the cottage as their summer residence. They also use the scenic village as a tourist business venture, much to the chagrin of the brothers, especially Martin. While Steven has a boat, which he uses to ferry out the tourists around the coast, Martin fishes without a boat as he needed his share of the house sale to look after his son, Neil. There is also the pub landlady and Wenna, a feisty, outspoken, out of control young girl. The narrative is economical and sparse, akin to a Bresson movie. The way Jenkin racks up the tension and suspense from the word go recalls the early Polanski films. His use of montage and expressive faces goes back to the early silent films of Eisenstein. Frequent shots of dead fish, fish heads being cut and the ever-questioning, angry face of Martin create a sense of dread and tension which grab the viewer and don’t let go. Conversations between different people are inter-cut. Not many words are spoken, and the short conversations are very Pinteresque and full of menace. 

The event which pours oil on the slow burning flame is Martin’s son Neil, going out with the Leigh’s daughter, Katie. This arouses the extreme resentment of Katie’s brother, Hugo. Jenkin’s script, however, sets itself apart from other films which have explored similar themes of love and envy, class differences, locals versus outsiders, erosion of values, etc. It is as though the script was put through a sieve and all the clichés had fallen through the holes. Every element in the film works and makes a valuable contribution to the narrative; not one shot in the 89 minutes of the film is wasted. The music fits perfectly with the mood. The tone and look of the film are also somewhat reminiscent of Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse (2019).

The unity of effect gives Bait an air of authenticity about it. The fact that Jenkin lives in Cornwall and knows the locality and its people very well has undoubtedly helped. Bait also defies its miniscule budget. All the performances are outstanding with not a weak link to be found, even among the support players. Edward Rowe as Martin has one of those faces which says so much without having to utter a word. Mark Jenkin has almost created his own unique genre with his debut feature film. In the 2020 BAFTA Awards, Bait was nominated for the Best British Film, which it lost to Sam Mendes’s 1917 (2019) but it walked away with the BAFTA for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director, or Producer. It was richly deserved.

Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).

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