Film-maker Mark Jenkin: ‘We’re Cornish. We can just have our own culture’

Quentin Tarantino is a fan, Mark Kermode a champion. How Cornwall’s best-kept secret became the toast of Cannes and the Berlinale

Mark Jenkin is a Cornish film-maker and artist known for his work in experimental and independent cinema. Two decades ago, he emerged as a unique Celtic voice with the short film, Golden Burn, earning Jenkin a first-time directing prize at the Celtic Media Festival. In recent years, he has led the charge in a revival for physical film, with a series of award-winning shorts, including The Essential Cornishman and The Road to Zennor.

Famously, he uses a hand-cranked 16mm 1978 Bolex camera, black-and-white Kodak stock, and he develops his own films using washing soda, coffee and vitamin C powder. It’s a method that is not for the faint-hearted, as it returns the film-maker to the pre-digital murk of not knowing whether the shot is truly in the can until the film stock is developed. Neither can he rely on such contemporary innovations as the Video Tap or Video Assist.

“It’s nerve-wracking, but it takes out the opportunity or temptation to do stuff again,” says Jenkin. “Obviously with digital, you just never commit to anything. You look at it and see another shot or see a way of improving it. Because we’re not looking at the final footage, you just commit to it in that moment and move on. So I think it speeds things up. I don’t even have anybody to confer with because I don’t use a preview monitor or anything. I’m the only person looking down the viewfinder. Sometimes, I’ll shoot something in close-up. And I’ll say, do you think we got that? And they’ll be like, ‘no idea; we’re all looking at a wide shot’.”

Jenkin remained one of the film industry’s best-kept secrets until 2019 when his feature film, Bait, premiered at the Berlinale to ecstatic response. The film received critical acclaim for its innovative techniques and its themes of gentrification and loss of community in a small Cornish fishing village. Writing in the Observer, Mark Kermode rightly characterised Bait as “...one of the defining British films of the year, perhaps the decade”. Bait landed a Bafta Award for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer. Quentin Tarantino was a notable fan; following Jenkin’s Bafta win, the Reservoir Dogs director made sure to approach “the Bait guy”.

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The rapturous response was a shock for Jenkin and his partner and collaborator, Mary Woodvine.

“I remember, me and Mary, In Berlin at the film premiere,” recalls Jenkin. “I’d never been to the Berlin Film Festival before. I was excited to be there. And then there are sold-out screenings and a bidding war and mad reviews. We got the midnight train out of Berlin after our final screening and travelled all the way back to Cornwall by train. We sat down in the station in shock. And then obviously the Baftas. Getting the train home with a Bafta was pretty overwhelming. Suddenly, I was travelling everywhere. I did 75 in-person Q&As at screenings over that period of time. In the south of France there was a retrospective of my early, short film works. And then the pandemic hit and the world shut down. So two things about that moment. What the f**k is happening now? And what the f**k happened over the last year? By the time the lockdown was over, I got to Penzance and I could barely remember how to buy a train ticket.”

The pandemic delayed production on Jenkin’s second feature, Enys Men (Stone Island), a beautifully textured folk horror about the disquieting effects of solitude. Set around the Cornish coast, the film, which premiered at Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight, stars Woodvine as a botanist who starts experiencing temporal collapses. She finds a cut flower in her isolated, generator-reliant cottage; she cuts the flower some days later. Long-drowned fishermen and Mayday maidens appear and disappear on a windswept landscape dominated by a mysterious standing stone.

“The biggest challenge has been the expectation,” says Jenkin. “I’ve done one of the things that I always said I’d never do. I’ve always been careful not to think about the audience. It’s a disrespectful thing because you’re presuming there’s an audience there. And if you presume there’s an audience, you start second-guessing what they want. Really, you don’t know what anybody wants. You’ve got to make it for an audience of one, which is yourself and then believe that you’re not so different to everybody else in the world. That was an easy thing to say around the time of Bait because nobody was waiting for that film. It wasn’t like it was Top Gun: Maverick but relatively speaking Bait made a big splash. So inevitably I’m thinking: difficult second album. What if I just used up everything on that first film?”

We were keen to distance ourselves from folk horror at first because I felt it was a really pastoral Merry Old England thing

—  Mark Jenkin

He needn’t have worried. To date, Enys Men has been hailed as “a striking cinematic anomaly that appears as though excavated from the annals of film-making history” (Variety) and a film that “... leaves you feeling as if you had emerged from a troubled sleep, and the world seems weirder as a result”. The early 1970s setting — and an aesthetic that feels contemporaneous — immediately evokes such classic folk horrors as The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw. It’s a genre description that Jenkin was initially weary of, before Kier-La Janisse’s extensive documentary, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror, brought the film-maker around.

“We were keen to distance ourselves from folk horror at first because I felt it was a really pastoral Merry Old England thing,” says the director. “I think it’s also dangerous territory to be going back to some Romantic version of England, especially politically at the moment. It’s a period that didn’t even exist in the first place anyway. But I had thought that folk horror was just films like Witchfinder General. And when I watched that documentary, I realised that everybody has their own folk horror: Irish and Scottish. So why not Cornish? So we did think about how we define that.”

Without offering any grand guignol moments, Enys Men — pronounced Ennis Main in Kernewek, the Cornish language — is a remarkably unsettling work. Even before lichen appears on the wildflowers, simultaneously sprouting from a scar across the heroine’s belly, the flowers are inexplicably creepy. The house, too, is forlorn enough to induce a sense of dread.

We used different interiors because, literally, when I stepped inside, I had to put a hard hat on. The roof was being held up by scaffolding

—  Mary Woodvine

Mary Woodvine is tickled by the idea that the flowers were scary, but concedes that the house was challenging.

“The house was completely derelict,” she says. “We used different interiors because, literally, when I stepped inside, I had to put a hard hat on. The roof was being held up by scaffolding. There’s a bit where I had to go upstairs when the children are singing outside the house, you might not have caught on the first time, but if you watch the film again you can see me looking out of the roof at the top window through the ivy. I had to be really careful. The house is in the middle of nowhere and people have just ripped everything out of it, stolen all the wood. So it’s a shell. Being there at night was spooky.”

I met Mark Jenkin and Mary Woodvine in London in early December, hours before a special Enys Men screening at the British Film Institute and days after a news story concerning the film’s poster — the first film poster printed in Kernewek — has made a splash on the BBC and Guardian websites.

(A committed Celt, Jenkin spent the previous evening cheering on Senegal as they unsuccessfully faced England at the World Cup finals.)

A Kernewek folk song written by Mercury Prize 2022 nominee Gwenno was, says Jenkin, a hugely important element of Enys Men. And the film arrives as part of the same new wave of minority-language cinema that yielded the heavily-decorated An Cailín Ciúin.

“We commissioned Gwenno Saunders to write a song in the Cornish language,” says Jenkin. “That was a no-brainer. So then the Cornish language became a bit more prominent within the film, which obviously has connotations, and it’s so closely linked to our separate identity. We’re Cornish. We can just have our own culture; it doesn’t have to be a rejection of anything. It’s a celebration. The story about the poster was one of the top 10 headlines on the Guardian website yesterday, which is incredible. The poster was translated for the benefit of Cornish language speakers in Cornwall. There’s no Cornish language speakers in Cornwall who don’t speak English. It’s just about making the language visible. I get very excited about that. I watched The Feast in Welsh recently. I didn’t know it was in Welsh. It didn’t explain why it was in Welsh. It didn’t need to. Half the films I watch have subtitles. That’s why film is such a great way to promote minority languages.”

  • Enys Men opens on January 13th