It can often feel like the world of cinema is a million miles away. Beyond some distant border, big-shot directors and celebrity actors inhabit a somewhat parallel yet wholly different territory, apparently similar to our own, but so obviously removed and unattainable. So, without an extortionate budget, top-spec technology or a household name in the title role, how on earth could we, the humble serfs, reach the giddy heights of respectable and respected filmmaking? This idea is perhaps inherent to Hollywood, a glorified land of smoke and mirrors in more ways than one.
Today (the 19th February) marks the anniversary of the death of Derek Jarman, one of Britain’s boldest and most visionary artists. A painter, poet, gardener, activist and director, he revolutionised and (re)democratised filmmaking, bringing it back to its honest, passionate roots, where it surely belongs. His films, often shot on a shoestring budget and with few resources, confronted the myth of Hollywood head on, redefining the parameters of cinema and what could be done within it. The message: anything is possible, and by any means. The subtle, almost theatrical studio sets of his 1986 movie Caravaggio, or even the neo-Brechtian approach to scenery which he takes in Wittgenstein (1993), give a raw sense of realism and stark inspiration. After all, why try to construct elaborate interiors if your budget won’t allow for it? Having a bare room as the Pope’s chambers, for example, makes for much more interesting viewing than simply taking an extravagant set for granted. And when it comes to props and costume, why not experiment even further, and give a 16th Century Cardinal a gold pocket calculator and Edwardian tuxedoed butlers? It communicates exactly the right message to modern audiences, so the fact that it isn’t cohesive with the time period becomes entirely irrelevant. There is a kind of magic here, a visual dynamism which I have seen in few other places. That stylised aesthetic, although prevalent in theatre, had been all but forgotten in cinema, and Jarman’s films dragged these ideas out of the gutter and put them front and centre, playfully experimenting with cultural perceptions and linguistics. He is not trying to appeal to any naïve ideal; he is sincerely addressing the here and now. Derek Jarman only lived to the age of 52, tragically dying of an AIDS-related illness in 1994, but his legacy, or perhaps the legacy of the cinema which he helped to revive, lives on to this day.
Fast-forward 25 years, and we find Bait, a feature film shot entirely on a single 16mm camera. Written, directed, filmed and hand-developed by the practically unknown Cornish filmmaker Mark Jenkin, it was released in August 2019 to a small reception, but rapidly accumulated critical acclaim and has been a permanent feature at major cinemas across Britain from Autumn last year right up until just last week. After Mark Kermode sung its praises with a five-star review in the Guardian and made it his Film of the Year, it went from strength to strength, and was awarded Outstanding Debut at the BAFTAs earlier this month (it was also nominated for Outstanding British Film alongside Rocketman, 1917, The Two Popes and Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You). Shot on location and with a budget of next to nothing, there is a real honesty to it, and many of the cast are in fact even related to Jenkins himself (his partner, her ex-husband and their adult son all have starring roles). It follows the dealings between the locals of a small Cornish fishing village and the second-home-owning tourists who travel down from London every summer, and for a story of class conflict, the production speaks almost as loudly as the plot itself. Actively embracing the complications of low budget, grassroots filmmaking, Bait showcases a Jarman-esque delight in the relationship between art and reality, allowing the nature of the process to heavily influence the style and feel of the film itself. All of the dialogue, for example, was dubbed in post-production, due to the noise of a 16mm camera being too loud to record audio whilst shooting, which not only gives the film a fascinating transient quality, but also allowed for further freedom and innovation in terms of sound design. The visual atmosphere created by the analogue camera more than makes up for the lack of expensive lighting or studio design, and despite his mastery of the craft, Mark Jenkin’s actual method (in and of itself) is so accessible and yields such good results it almost feels like cheating. I went to see it at the cinema twice, and both times was overcome by an ecstatic enthusiasm for filmmaking as a process that I could get involved in, rather than a far-away industry of polished, finished results. I left the cinema almost stuttering “but I could do that!”
Modern-day Cornish fisherman Martin (Edward Rowe) is struggling to buy a boat while coping with family rivalry and the influx of London money, holiday-homes and stag parties to his harbour village. The summer season brings simmering tensions within the community to boiling point, with tragic consequences.
But Mark Jenkin is not alone. Deep in the heart of British cinema at least, there seems to be a persistent hunger for a kind of direct, palpable filmmaking which is very reminiscent of Derek Jarman’s techniques. Andrew Kötting, a follower of Jarman and an influencer of Jenkin, has spent the past 30 years making experimental, hands-on films which are just as accessible as they are original. This Filthy Earth, his 2001 epic, tackles age-old themes: love, death, family, money and sex (in a storyline adapted from Émile Zola’s 1887 novel La Terre), but consistently pushes boundaries in terms of its structure and visual techniques. Stop-motion animation sequences, amateurish green screen effects, and various types of both high and low-definition cameras are utilised in fascinating ways, all contributing towards an overarching dialogue between surreal chaos and morbid mortality. There is a tangible sense of the physical act of producing a film; director, actors and crew collaborating together – and at times it almost feels as if the cast were just let loose in a field, and the camera operators simply tasked with keeping up with them.
Sisters Francine (Rebecca Palmer) and Kath (Demelza Randall) live on a farm in an isolated rural community, but their sibling bond is threatened after the conniving father of Kath’s child convinces her to marry him. Directed by Andrew Kotting (Swandown), written by Kotting and Sean Lock, and also starring Shane Attwooll and Xavier Tchili.
Mark Jenkin, Andrew Kötting, but also Ben Wheatly (A Field in England), Sally Potter (Orlando), Paul Wright (For Those in Peril); the list goes on, but what is obvious is that Derek Jarman’s passion and enthusiasm reignited the spark which has gone on to fuel some of the most inventive cinema of the past few decades. Even across the Atlantic, the style is being emulated by larger scale movies like The Lighthouse, out in cinemas just this month, and The Witch(2014), both by American director Robert Eggers. This grassroots movement, although thinly (yet consistently) spread over the last 30 years, is a ray of hope for aspiring directors and audiences alike. It represents a kind of escapism that is firmly rooted in reality, an authentic form of storytelling, which both delights and inspires in equal measures.
In a posthumous open letter to Derek Jarman in 2002, Tilda Swinton (who was cast for the first time in Caravaggio) writes:
“I have always wholeheartedly treasured in your work the whiff of the school play. It tickles me still and I miss it terribly. The antidote it offers to the mirror ball of the marketable – the artful without the art, the meaningful devoid of meaning – is meat and drink to so many of us looking for that dodgy wig, that moment of awkward zing, that loose corner where we might prise up the carpet and uncover the rich slates of something we might recognise as spirit underneath. Something raw and dusty and inarticulate, for heaven’s sake.”
Andrew Kötting’s This Filthy Earth and all of Derek Jarman’s films are available to borrow from the Goldsmiths Library. Bait is still being screened at selected cinemas and is also available online on the BFI Player.
Words, Joseph Hewlett-Hall