Poldark aside, Cornwall has not been the scene of many modern screen hits. The new British film Bait has changed that. There was always going to be an element of commercial risk in releasing this crackly, zero-budget film about Cornish fishermen, shot on black-and-white stock on a vintage clockwork camera and processed entirely by hand. Launching it at the fag-end of summer, when cinemas are still dominated by blockbusters, seemed unlikely to improve its prospects. What possible tag-line could reel in the masses? “If you liked Aquaman…”?
But Bait has become a surprise hit; it will be rippling out to more venues across Britain until the end of the year. As a fisherman without a boat, the gruff but drily funny Martin (Edward Rowe) is facing an existential crisis. He long ago sold the family cottage to a middle-class couple who now hawk it out as an Airbnb, the fridge ready-filled with fizz and local cheese. But he grumbles about how these London toffs have decorated the place with nautical paraphernalia (“All bloody ropes and chains — looks like a sex dungeon”) and has no time for their claims to be re-energising the community: “You pay slave wages then piss off to the Maldives,” he fumes. So whose Cornwall is it anyway?
The writer-director Mark Jenkin, a Newlyn native, has spent 20 years, on and off, bringing the film to fruition. The idea, he says, can be traced back to 1999 when “the whole world came to Cornwall” to see the solar eclipse. That prospective version of Bait involved a civil war between the locals and the incomers, while a later draft concerned a fisherman making a video to preserve his way of life to show it to his unborn child. What has remained in the finished Bait, two decades on, are the germs of both ideas: class tensions, neglected and struggling communities exploited by tourism, and the sense of a way of life fading from view forever.
Chief among its accomplishments is bringing the community itself into focus. “There’s a tradition — and it’s not just in Cornwall, it’s in a lot of the regions — where you use a specific location as a backdrop for somebody else’s story,” Jenkins says. “And it’s usually a story where somebody arrives who’s troubled, and they don’t realise they’re troubled, but through interactions with ‘simple folk’ they simplify their life. I wanted to bring the Cornish people to the foreground rather than being in the background and being a short-cut for simplicity or stupidity.”
Perhaps it’s for the best that it took so long for Bait to reach the screen. The film’s observations about the characters and their landscape have a baked-in depth and richness. Jenkin invites us to notice the self-sabotaging hauteur of Martin, and the way that his battles over territory are reproduced on every level — in a miniature war about parking spaces, or in a dispute about the pool table at the local pub. Brexit is mentioned only in a brief radio debate overheard in passing but it isn’t a stretch to say that the film has absorbed many of the tensions that led Cornwall to vote overwhelmingly to leave the EU. In Martin’s feelings of abandonment, alienation and resentment, Bait gives some idea of how such a situation could have come to pass.
Depending on the circumstances of each screening, it is likely that Bait will turn the subject of privilege, entitlement and ownership back onto the viewer. I happened to watch it at an independent cinema in a shabby-chic corner of east London that has been only marginally resistant to gentrification itself. After watching this story of a man battling pretentious Londoners for control of his livelihood, I crossed the road to a former greasy spoon that has undergone a hipster makeover. In the same cramped booths where labourers once sat elbow-to-elbow over their full English, I thought about Martin and his desperate bid for livelihood while I nibbled on tenderstem broccoli with fennel, capers and yogurt, and waited for a dirty vegan burger.
Many of the people who see Bait will do so in similarly pampered surroundings, though its tour has taken it also to the sorts of communities, Cornish or otherwise, to which its characters’ predicaments most strongly pertain. But the subject of communities being overlooked, trampled or eradicated in the stampede for gentrification, second-homes, buy-to-rents and Airbnbs will be one of the pressing issues of any movie that seeks to engage with the current turbulence in our landscape.
In US cinema it has been investigated by Ira Sachs, first in Love Is Strange, his film about a middle-aged married gay couple who have to live separately when straitened economic circumstances force them out of their apartment, and more acutely in Little Men, in which an Argentinean dress-maker in Brooklyn is gradually squeezed out of her shop when her landlord dies and his family takes over the property. Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give also examined the place where liberalism collides with real estate, as a liberal Manhattanite played by Catherine Keener agonises over the poor (“I want to give something to someone,” she says vaguely) but can’t disguise her impatience for her elderly neighbour to die so that she can knock through into her apartment.
These movies give at least equal weight to the dilemmas of wealthy liberals but it is in a spate of films from the BFI, the distributor of Bait, that the presence of overlooked communities has most strongly been represented in recent cinema. In 2014, the BFI instigated diversity directives to establish a plurality of stories, perspectives and talent. The “three ticks” initiative, set up to “recognise and acknowledge the quality and value of difference”, asked a series of questions of all productions seeking funding, such as, “Is the project telling us something we do not already know?” and, “Does the project have the potential to open doors which have historically been closed?”
The directives were rolled out to other UK funding bodies (such as Ffilm Cymru Wales and Northern Ireland Screen) and the result has been a wave of films representing gender, ethnicity, sexuality, disability and geography in surprising ways. Among them were God’s Own Country, about a Yorkshire farmer who falls for a Romanian labourer, I Am Not a Witch by the Welsh-Zambian director Rungano Nyoni and Beast, a thriller set in Jersey, which has been virtually untouched by film or TV since the heyday of Bergerac.
It is Bait, though, which has inspired in audiences a uniquely visceral and protective response. Its resemblance to a neglected artefact lying for decades in a fisherman’s shed can’t have hurt. It looks like it has been lost for the longest time. Perhaps that’s why it speaks to us.