Bait may well be one of the most unique films to come out of Britain in recent years. Ian Mantgani hit the nail on the head when he commented that the film feels like it’s been ‘belched up by the angry sea’ in his Sight and Sound review – a shear force of nature that made a glorious splash at this year’s Berlinale. A surreal, black-and-white gem, Bait’s story about the effect of the tourism industry on a small fishing town on the Cornish coast will inevitably draw parallels with Brexit for many, but perhaps that’s too easy a conclusion for a film that oozes repressed anger and class tensions. Twenty years in the making, perhaps the film is as much about Brexit as it is about Britain. Tellingly, writer/director/editor/developer Mark Jenkin commented in a Q&A after a screening at the Berlinale that ‘Brexit is Britain’.
Yes, you did read that right, Mark Jenkin wrote, directed, edited, dubbed and hand developed the 16mm print for the film, resulting in a distinctive form that not only feels extremely personal but inextricably rooted to its story. The next time someone casually refers to a director as an auteur, you can point them in the direction of Jenkin with a smug grin. The filmmaker’s decision to shoot/edit with analogue equipment may seem a tad unnecessary considering the accessibility and cost-effective digital alternatives, but Jenkin sees parallels between him and Martin (the film’s fisherman central character). Jenkin’s love of using celluloid is akin to the ancient practice of fishing – two traditions on the verge of extinction in a world moving ever forward with technological advances.
Jenkin manages to strike a distinctive tone with his fifth micro-budget feature, post-syncing audio to the 16mm footage, giving the performances and set-ups a stilted dreamlike quality that transports the audience to a world where the past is inescapably linked to the present. The editing also plays with the transience of time, flash-forwards and flash-backs interjecting the narrative, linking two discernibly unrelated events/objects which when watched in a different context later in the film produce wholly different meanings. Time also morphed for Kate Byers and Linn Waite, producers of Bait, who had a hectic weekend at the Berlinale due to interest in the film – something fairly rare for a film positioned in the Forum section of the programme. The glitz of the festival is far from the bracing conditions of Cornwall, where the producers shared a caravan for the month-long shoot in 2017. A four star review from Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian effectively acted as the starting pistol for distributors and festival organisers to take notice of the small production, and subsequently garnered extra industry screenings (one of seventeen films from the whole festival to do so). The only thing to figure out now is what the next step for the film will be. Nestled away in the UK section of the hustle-bustle of the European Film Market, Byers and Waite try to illustrate how difficult it is to navigate the festival circuit and secure distribution, likening it to ‘a jigsaw puzzle, but the pieces are from different puzzles’.
That’s not such a bad way to describe Bait’s narrative structure, which slots together in a unconventional manner. Jenkin, who came up with a filmmaking manifesto in 2013, is an artist who knows how he likes to work. In the aforementioned Q&A, he disclosed how he usually only needs to shoot one take, and one safety, before moving on to maintain momentum. His choice to shoot Bait in mostly static shots ‘forced (him) to be creative in the edit’, and emphasises his disinterest in realism. Leaning towards a more impressionist style, Jenkin also expressed his disbelief in how cinematic forms haven’t massively changed in 100 years.
Perhaps this notion is at the core of Bait – a film that asks how far has British society come and where is it headed? Shots of the wizened faces of old fishermen looking off towards the horizon display this symbiotic relationship between the past and the future. Not to mention that the film is also very funny, making light of the differences between the posh holiday-makers and the grizzled Martin, but there’s no denying an ugly undercurrent of aggression footnotes this film – something that feels appropriate for the country’s current political climate. So whilst it’s great that this small film has managed to catch such a decent haul of admirers in Germany’s capital, it will be truly intriguing to see how the film plays in its home territory.