Monday, 26 August 2019

They took the Bait!

Local film maker (using traditional film rather than digital countries) Mark Jenkin is currently wowing the film world with his piercing look at Cornwall's relationship with tourism.

Down the hill in the village, someone has attached a handwritten sign to a lamp-post: “Newlyn fishermen deserve better.” The sentiment is vague, but palpably desperate. In 2016, Newlyn was the largest fishing port in England for landings, but it is among the 25 of Britain’s 41 ports classified as deprived. In May, a report outlined the mental illness crisis in Cornwall’s fishing community, stemming from poor work-life balance, precarious employment and weather, dangerous working conditions and sleep deprivation.

“They’re the last hunters, and they’re my heroes,” says Jenkin. “I’d really love them to see it and for them to know that there is somebody who’s putting the complexity of their lives on screen rather than being treated simplistically as a political bargaining chip. They’re always demonised, whether it’s politically or environmentally.”

The EU referendum took place about a year before Bait started shooting, but the result didn’t change Jenkin’s story. “You could see it coming,” he says. “It’s a disenfranchised people who were given the chance to reject something. Fishermen are always getting screwed over.” Still, he doesn’t think Brexit is the answer. “A complete rethink in how you treat working people and industry is actually what’s needed. The fishermen will get screwed over again.”

Bait’s local premiere takes place at Newlyn Filmhouse, an arthouse cinema in a former fish merchant that opened in April 2016. It is a brilliant local resource, but doesn’t it exemplify the tensions in Jenkin’s film? “There’s a danger that Newlyn will get gentrified like a lot of other places,” he admits. The old warehouse “could have easily been holiday flats. It is a funny one – I’m opposed to gentrification, but if it’s an arthouse cinema, we’ll let it go.”

That is not as much of a cop-out as it sounds: “The thing is, with Newlyn, historically, there’s always been a link between the arts world and the world of fishing,” says Jenkin. “They’re not that different, really.”

He brings up the prewar slum clearances, when Penzance town council intended to replace 350 “squalid” Newlyn houses with a new estate. Artists including Stanhope Forbes and Geoffrey Garnier joined local fishing families in challenging the plans. Together, they managed to save more than a third of the homes. It comes back to the idea that Jenkin has spent two decades refining: rural communities can’t afford to be stagnant. They have to evolve, but the line between survival and exploitation is a fine one.