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  • Writer's pictureLaurence Boag-Matthews

SFF 2023 DAY 1

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

Scarborough Film Festival kicked off yesterday with an exciting programme of films and recorded performance that brought attention to the environment and activism. The core themes of community, coast, and environment were all touched upon in diverse and exciting ways throughout the evening.

Firstly we were treated to a pairing of films that explore aspects of life in England’s coastal communities. Mark Jenkin’s breakout feature Bait manages to tap into a kind of epic narrative through its close adherence to its Cornish setting. At its core the film is concerned with struggle in the Cornish town. The town in which Bait is set remains nameless, giving it an anonymous almost mythic aura, the issues presented are not localised but widespread across Corwall and beyond. Jenkin has discussed how he used multiple towns and interior locations for the film, the fact that he ‘can’t be accused of making a film that's an issue in a specific town, [... or] piss off any locals who feel like [he’s] commenting on their way of life,’ this approach allows the film to inhabit ‘an allegorical space as much as anything.’ and lends the film a universal quality, drawing attention to how the story follows beats of classical tragedy while depicting the characters as individuals specific to this particular narrative that also serve as archetypes that indicate the larger themes. The combination of Cornwall as a setting, as well as Jenkin’s experimental use of 16mm film and visual and sound editing choices in the film bring dimensions to the film that we rarely see in contemporary filmmaking. The dialogue was all recorded after the filming process and post-synced with the visuals which contributes a sometimes uncanny effect to the voices and extremity to the sound effects. Film as a real material thing is apparent and a focus for Jenkin, his process reveals imperfections in the film, there is a noticeable grain - this visibility of the analogue filmmaking process brings up similarities between the traditional work of filmmaking and fishing which are often observed as fading arts in the modern world.

The film explores the tensions present in places that exist as tourist destinations, what the relationships between the native population and the new/ tourist inhabitants mean, how their presence changes the town, or potentially how their presence is a symptom rather than a cause of such change. Jenkin wrote and directed this film which is a highly personal project, and this deep personal involvement shows through in his extension of empathy that imbues all aspects of the story and characters. The film doesn’t straightforwardly empathise with Martin (Edward Rowe) as its Cornish protagonist, Rowe portrays the Cornish fisherman with unlikeable qualities which serve to humanise him as they complicate a straightforwardly good vs. evil narrative. The ‘gentrifiers’ vs. ‘locals’ narrative is clearly communicated as Martin’s perspective, but Jenkin doesn’t shy away from showing his failings. Equally, while the couple Sandra and Tim (Mary Woodvine and Simon Shepherd) that bought Martin’s family’s childhood home are portrayed as out of touch with the origins of the town and seemingly completely at odds with Martin’s worldview and lifestyle, and their insistence on being part of the community seems slightly ridiculous, the satire is bitingly accurate and the performances in conjunction with the filmmaking methods allow these elements to stay firmly grounded in the real. Jenkin’s resistance to portraying any of the issues as strictly black and white allows the film to comment at its core on the underlying structural issues in the economy and society at large that have led to the destruction of Britain’s fishing culture and the rise of the tourism industry in its place that has contributed to the current state of Cornwall.

Bait was quickly followed by Scarborough-set short film The Tide which also explores the nature of life and work in a seaside town, and how economic change and demand affects community and individual identity. We were joined by some members of the cast and crew of The Tide who discussed the inspiration behind and the process of making the film itself in more depth. The process of filming this project was delightfully described as a ‘wet, cold baptism of fire’, and while it seems to have been a difficult but rewarding process, the cast and crew sung the praises of the Scarborough community and their support during production. Similarly to Jenkin’s film, The Tide is firmly grounded in the local and made in collaboration with the community but is set in Scarborough as opposed to Cornwall. The film explores loss and grief in a deeply personal way that the nature of the film demands due to its shorter runtime encouraging a tighter focus for the narrative. The exploration of the relationships between the men in the film is portrayed in a refreshing manner that speaks to the strong links in the fishing community that will erode along with the industry if it is not valued and is allowed to continue on its current path. The inability for fishermen to be able to repair their old boats or buy new boats to carry out their work has a real impact on individuals and the community around them.

The Tide, like Bait, offers suggestions of the uncanny and introduces folklore-inspired elements into its narrative. Bringing in elements of the history and folklore of their settings grounds these films firmly in their communities, the understanding and grounding in the history and atmosphere of their settings allows them to authentically represent the stories being told, which is key in these films as the narratives focus on the precarity of the community and nature as under threat. Skipper’s (Francis Magee) final scene is perhaps the most visually impactful of the film as a whole, the night setting and lighting of this scene was discussed by the members of the Q&A panel as a group effort to take advantage of the natural lighting in the moment. The scene between Skipper and the Night Angler (Olwen Fouéré) places us in a kind of liminal dream-space that more explores his psyche than sitting within the ‘reality’ of the film’s world which works harmoniously with the visual impact of the scene. The crew clearly had fantastic experiences filming the short and Liam Thomas discussed his current project in the works that will bring The Tide’s crew back together to carry out his vision for a Yorkshire-set Western, so keep a lookout for exciting news about that!

Finally, we returned to the cinema to engage with Fehinti Balogun and Complicité’s production Can I Live?. This performance piece that focuses on Balogun’s personal relationship to activism and climate collapse takes a more direct approach to the theme of environment asking wide ranging questions such as: what is our place as individuals in a precarious ecosystem, what does collective action look like and how do we achieve and acknowledge successes as activists? We were also joined by Fehinti Balogun the creator and main performer and Samia Dumbuya an activist who appears in the performance, to engage in an intimate discussion of the themes and the inspiration we may take from the piece and how we may convert this into further engagement and collective action. The piece manages to straddle serving hard-hitting and impactful information while remaining engaging and entertaining. Balogun discussed that he wanted to find a creative way to talk about big issues, aiming to challenge the ‘language of ostracisation’ that surrounds discussions of the climate crisis. In bringing a creative approach he wanted to cast as wide a net as he could to engage his audiences, keeping the structure as simple as possible and building up to songs periodically throughout as he aspires to move people emotionally in the manner of song.

Balogun also touched on his material strategy and aims, Can I Live? is not a standalone piece but works in conjunction with the group discussion to maximise action by engaging with the audiences’ personal connections and bringing awareness to location specific projects. Balogun discussed the way long term strategy and organisation leads up to the tipping point moments that tend to characterise political movements. He brings attention to the achievements they have made with the Green Rider by working with organisations such as MSNBC, Equity and the BBC. The discussion between Balogun and Dumbuya brought attention to the desperate need for collective engagement and connection as a way to combat the individualism that works in favour of those in power as ‘a strategic narrative to stop people doing anything’. Dumbuya touched on some of the ways in which we can engage and be working to carry out activist projects in ways that differ from the usual understandings of what ‘counts’ as activism. She mentioned how the commodification of ‘activist’ as a title contributes to this narrowing of the definition and discussed how the work of activism can be a huge number of things - from admin to making the tea at a meeting. She described ‘activism as nourishing the movement’, rather than viewing it as a personal ‘hero's journey’ that can lead to alienation and burnout.

The discussion threw up many important causes in the film industry as well as organisations and initiatives local to Scarborough: the importance of joining labour unions such as Equity; the Green Rider and how actors can work with productions to encourage sustainability; the damage of water pollution to the Sea which is a key mission of Surfers Against Sewage (; the audience also drew attention to local green projects as ways to promote environmental work and change.

This was a hugely exciting first evening, with a wide range of styles and voices that still remained thematically tied together by commitment to the environment nourishing and in need of nourishment. Complicité are touring Can I Live? at local film festivals and events across the country so there are many opportunities to engage with this fantastic piece - they also provide resources and information on their website that are free to access:

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