Observer/Anthony Burgess prize for arts journalism 2020: Paul Bahrami on Bait | The Observer/Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism

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Paul Bahrami lives and works in Manchester. He writes in his spare time.

Recently, it seems England’s provinces have become foreign countries. Journalists roam the country as if on foreign correspondence missions, while politicians fight to be the most convincing ventriloquist for the small-town everyman. Brexit has put small and remote places back on the map, and their people are there to be pathologised.

England beyond the pale is the theme of Cornish director Mark Jenkin’s new film Bait. Set in an unnamed fishing village, the plot follows Martin Ward as he struggles to earn a living as a fisherman in an economy captured by tourism. It’s a parasitic trade, whose logic allows metropolitan interlopers to buy Martin’s family home and turn it into a tat-filled AirBnB, and the local pub to make a killing from summer tourists only to close in winter when locals could most do with a drink. Too poor to afford a boat, Martin lays nets on the beach to catch the fish swept in by the tide and drops lobster pots into whirlpools. It’s hard work for the barest of gains, but better than the degrading alternative: Ward’s brother Steven has quit fishing and uses his boat for tourist outings instead.

Martin’s defiant adherence to his craft as a fisherman is matched by Jenkin’s as a filmmaker. Filmed in black and white on a clockwork camera from 1976, Jenkin was limited to 2.5 minutes per shot and had to film in silence, dubbing the dialogue later in the studio. It’s a work of craft, and beautiful for it, Jenkin using the self-imposed constraint to work detail and character into the final cut, reserving the beginning and end of each reel to film non-sequiturs, figureheads in the pub or handcuffs clicking into place, which he then dots throughout the film to foreshadow the narrative. This is Luddism, Jenkin denying himself technology to tell the story of those left to the mercy of a changing economy.

The near orientalist interest in provincial England doesn’t feel out of place when applied to Cornwall. With its own language and a serious, if small, separatist movement, Cornwall is not like other English provinces – it’s more like Wales or Scotland than Lincolnshire or Lancashire. The county attracts more than its fair share of tourists and second-home weekend warriors and it’s probably the only place where the 30p Rick Stein’s takeaway charges for sauces could warrant coverage in national newspapers. Like Venice or the Thai islands, it suffers from overtourism, whose benefits are seasonal jobs and unfulfilling work but all too little wealth for local people.

To challenge this, Jenkin has made a post-colonial film for the province, pitting metropolitan chauvinists against virtuous locals. In Bait, outsiders enjoy Cornwall’s beauty while at the same time fetishising its history, surrounding themselves with fishing paraphernalia but ignorant of the real struggles of the modern trade. These poseurs add insult to the injury of economic decline, and contribute to Cornwall’s social problems: Jenkin’s earlier film, Bronco’s House, depicts a young family trying to find shelter in a market inflated by second homes.

Jenkin’s initial idea was to make a war film about Cornish guerillas taking on the tourists. After much violence, the RAF ends the fight by carpet bombing Cornwall. Bait is subtler, but not by much. Jenkin leaves out the firestorm, but still carves out the deserving from the undeserving, the defiant natives from the foreign exploiters and the sellouts who serve them. On his way home from work, Martin hangs fresh fish off the handles of his neighbours’ doors; his brother turns his back on his trade and cheapens his heritage. For this, he receives divine punishment in the finale, God, or Jenkin, taking a dim view of his class treachery.

For all its beauty, Bait lacks humour. While the subject matter is serious and Cornwall’s troubles are real and damaging, the moral clarity of Jenkin’s portrayal somehow lessens them. The trap in post-colonial writing is to assume that your people, whoever they are, not only have a grievance worth airing but are made noble by it. Flann O’Brien’s The Poor Mouth and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout show that, often, the grievance can make fools of them. Both write about the cost of oppression to a people and their culture, the Irish and black Americans respectively, but rather than lament the defeat, they revel in it. They refuse to fetishise their heritage and, instead, ridicule themselves as much as their oppressors, sending up the jargon-heavy lectures of sub-par post-colonial racial theorists, or the proud, pseudo-primitive stupidity of middle-of-the-road Irish literature. There’s something joyous in a crass joke, and by wearing stereotype as mockery they win back power. Watching Bait, you wonder if it would have been better as the cartoon fight Jenkin initially intended it to be.

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Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Observer/Anthony Burgess prize for arts journalism 2020: Paul Bahrami on Bait | The Observer/Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism

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