Saturday 15 December 2012

Filmed on location

When we think of art in Cornwall we think of painting and, maybe, sculpture, but we wouldn't necessarily think of film. But if we did think of film, we'd picture period dramas shot against dramatic coastlines, windswept moors and cobbled village lanes. But I wonder if anyone would consider the unpolished streets of Penzance and Newlyn an obvious film set? For Newlyn-based filmmaker and writer Mark Jenkin, local terrain offers a rich palette for his pithy work. His latest film, Happy Christmas, is a tender, human story that walks a delicate balance between bleakness and warmth, and for this, a remote seaside town in winter is the ideal environment. We met Mark at the Lost & Found Café on Chapel Street to find out more about the film and its maker. 

We are not film critics, so we won't attempt a review as such, but we will say that it made a lasting impression on us. We don't know if this because the local context gave it pertinence, but we do believe its message hit a chord. We were also struck by the natural performances, and we found out that this is because all dialogue was improvised. This is a tested, yet bold, directorial approach, where brief notes on character and scene context are all the cast have to go on; the rest is up to them. In this case, it worked. 

We asked Mark about the inspiration for the film and we were fascinated to hear that music was the starting point. In the main, the soundtrack comprises a set of songs by local artist and musician Daryl Waller. A demo sent to Mark was the first time the songs had ever been heard by ears other than his own, and such were their touching beauty, that Mark was driven to put pictures to the sounds. The film's excellent soundtrack is now available on Daryl's label Flawedcore Records, also featuring works by Morris Murdoch and Nick Harpley.

The film's tag line is An interwoven seaside hymn to gift-wrapped promises and unwanted presence, and makes for a neat précis of this atmospheric Christmas ramble. The film's unhurried pace makes it more akin to French cinema. No surprise then that it went down well at its premiere at the Dinard Film Festival in Brittany. However, it won't be everyone's cup of tea. Last year's hometown premiere at the Savoy sparked a severely polar response. But this, Mark assures me, is a trusted sign of effective creative output. 

Mark is also proud to tell us that Happy Christmas is a zero budget film, made using friends and family as actors, and with minimum crew and equipment. The decision to take this lo-fi approach was a purposeful one; the freedom of autonomous directorial control gave him the creative fulfillment he was looking for at the time. Bigger budget films, or those where funding is drawn from other sources, make for a complicated and cumbersome filmmaking process. Happy Christmas had no such shackles. In fact, the shooting schedule, and even some of the scenes, were as spontaneous as the script. It was an organic process, with no time restrictions or marketing plan to pander to. Lack of cash imposed its own restrictions, but its just this that Mark thrives on; in his mind, such limitations inspire invention.

This philosophy is one that Mark is keen to instil in the students he lectures in Film at University College Falmouth. Teaching is not only a source of income for Mark, but at 36, it is also a way for him to hang onto the youthful spark of inspiration. 

His own introduction to the medium was haphazard. While studying biology A-level at St. Austell college or, rather, not studying biology A-level at St. Austell college, he would hang around in the photography lab while his friend processed film and made prints. Eventually, the tutor suggested he might as well take the course as he already spent so much time there. And thus, the door opened onto the world of image making and story telling that Mark fell in love with. His first films were made using an old Super-8 camera, and, since then, a passion for traditional film techniques has stayed with him. Now he's a hoarder of vintage film equipment, and plans to take a space at Newlyn School of Art to create an analogue film processing studio. With this in mind, it's probably quite interesting to learn that Mark turned up to our meeting on a 40-year-old Vespa. Unfortunately it broke down on the way, making him late, but anyone with a love of outmoded technology will recognise that such unpredictability is exactly the imperfection that he's drawn to.

It's in this spirit, then, that Mark has decided to consolidate his ideas on filmmaking; he has drawn up a film manifesto entitled SLDG13, and subtitled Innovation through Imperfection, in which thirteen strict points lay down the law on how films should not be made – inspiring the filmmaker to limit themselves to the most basic techniques, to force creativity. So you see, we're dealing with a someone with true conviction – the next Robert Bresson? You never know.

So why isn't Mark living in London, or moving to LA for that matter? Half an hour spent on his website, watching the affectionate portrayal of our people and places, will reveal his devotion to this area. Part of Mark's mission is to raise the profile of the film industry in the South West, and together with five other filmmakers, including Denzil Monk and Brett Harvey, Mark has founded film production and distribution company Western Light Pictures. As well as Happy Christmas, their roster includes Mark's earlier film, The Midnight Drives and Brett's award-winning black comedy thriller, Weekend Retreat, both set in Cornwall. One of their future projects will be Mark's film about the plight of local fishermen – an important and underexposed story in Mark's mind. So important, in fact, that he's spent 11 years writing the screenplay. 

So now, of course, you want to see Happy Christmas. There will be a free screening at the Lost and Found Café in Trevelyan House on Chapel Street on Thursday 20th December at 7pm. But if you can't get to that, you can watch the entire film online, again for free. Doing either will open your eyes to the signs of a Cornish film scene that's shining brightly, right here in our midst.

Watch the film:

Words © Dee and Gerard Ivall. Images © Nik Strangelove

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