Happy Christmas - Mark Jenkin

I first came across Mark Jenkin’s work running Filmstock, when his first film Golden Burn came across our path. It’s been a long time since that film, and Jenkin has grown into an accomplished feature filmmaker. His latest film is Happy Christmas, shot in 2011 and released for free on Vimeo over the 2012 festive period. It’s meditative and contemplative certainly, but without story it most certainly isn’t. Or stories more accurately. The film captures a tone and pace that is uniquely Cornwall, but with characters, moments and interactions that are universal in their humanity, awkwardness and fragility. There is a balance of the local, the quirky regional, and the deeply cinematic that makes it both engaging and moving. The film follows an ensemble of characters struggling with the pressure that comes from modern Christmas festivities and teases out drama through some beautifully tempered dialogue, a fine score and fine performances. The photography is delicate and purposeful and creates surreality and transcendence from the seemingly mundane.

The theme of journeys, both literal in the sense that much of the film follows characters journeying, reflects the emotional journeys undertaken within families at the end of every year as they confront each other and themselves, reflect and look forward. The spirit of the film is reflected in its production. Influenced by the likes of Cassavetes and Godard and embracing the immediate and the unpredictable, the film feels alive with ideas and emotion even as the pace is slow and reflective.

Mark is a Cornwall native and despite time in London and Bournemouth is still resident there. He lives in Newlyn, 50 metres from the house his father was born in. When people tell him it’s strange to be based so far from London, literally he couldn’t get any further without getting wet, he replies that he is actually closer to Hollywood where he is. Although, it’s unlikely there is much in that town that would tempt him to up sticks. On January 1st 2013 he unveiled his new manifesto Silent Landscape Dancing Grain 13, already known as SLDG13 for short (by me if no one else). It shares a passion for experimentation within classical film language constructs with that most infamous of manifestos, that of the Dogme 95 collective.

Fascinated, I asked Mark about the manifesto for DN:

How did your experience of making Happy Christmas inspire the manifesto? That film would break quite a few of your rules.

I’m always quite keen to react against things and often that includes my own work. The manifesto promotes a working practice that is a million miles away from the way in which I achieved Happy Christmas. In some ways it’s completely back to front. Happy Christmas was a film that had a germ of an idea at the outset and was explored through the shoot and then finally realised in the edit.

To make a similar drama film according to the rules of the manifesto you would have to have everything pinned down before the camera is lifted. You could do it in the same way but it would be expensive and the point of the manifesto is to keep costs down whilst shooting on a format that is perceived as being expensive. I think I can justify almost every rule in terms of keeping costs down…they are far more practical than artistic.

It was also a lot to do with aesthetics though. Like a lot of people I am quite a romantic when it comes to film and I have never been entirely happy with the way digital video looks. I like the image to have a texture, I like grain, it looks like a living thing to me. There are clever ways of replicating grain digitally and I have spent a lot of time on my own and in collaboration trying to come up with a look that I’m happy with but it’s a lot of work, and a bit fraudulent. In the end I it lacks the unpredictability of celluloid grain. I find there can be much more energy within a static shot capturing on film than the most dynamic, choreographed digital shot…the image pulses and the grain dances within the confines of the frame…it does so much work for you.

The production of Happy Christmas was in many senses very real for me. I was at the centre of almost everything because the crew was so small; sometimes four, mostly three, sometimes just me and the sound recordist, sometimes just me. But it still didn’t feel entirely real. It was the first time in a while that I’d spent a prolonged time operating a camera and I began to feel quite detached from what was going on. I was creating, pulling the strings and working up close with all the actors but the technical process was a mystery. The process was too clean, the camera too light, memory cards and data transfer where a mystery, it was all hidden and cryptic. I couldn’t get to the source. I suppose the tangible form is important to me. I never much liked working with digital tape but I began to pine for something that I could rewind, and have stock that wasn’t small enough to lose in my own pocket. It’s quite hard to explain.

I’m currently making a documentary about the building of a bronze age boat. It’s a plank boat carved from oak, shaped with replica bronze age tools and sewn with yew. It’s all being done by a group of volunteers and I’m fascinated by what attracts these people to want to give up their spare time to come and hit a lump of wood day after day. It’s so slow, physical, messy. Then I realised that it’s because it’s real. The thing they are doing is tangible. The results are real. I think that a lot of people are disconnected from the real now. We all exist, to a certain extent in a virtual world where nothing actually exists in the traditional sense. But when it comes to this boat, it’s something you can touch, smell, see in all its glory and every one of those volunteers leaves a bit of themselves on that boat. Brian, the shipwright who’s in charge of it all, is so excited by all the different marks individuals have left on the boat. They’re all using the same primitive, simple tools but they all use them differently. There are infinite possibilities, not just 1s and 0s. I very quickly saw the relevance to filmmaking. It was the lack of the real that was disconnecting me from film. The process had become too easy and as a result the work less interesting.

I was also inspired by Sven Berlin, the artist who based himself in St. Ives in the 40s and 50s. He was in awe of the fisherboys and the farmers and the miners who toiled the sea and the land. He recognised their connection with the place through their manual work and he envied their sense of place. He wanted to experience some of that connection but he was an artist so what could he do? Suddenly he moved away from painting and began sculpting. He worked with huge lumps of granite and marble, outside in the elements. He had found a way to satisfy his creative urges with physical labour and produced some amazing work. I feel the same. I long for an element of physicality in filmmaking and have now found out where that is. I don’t like sitting down and working. I even edit standing up now.

Working with film is tactile and delicate. You have to work quickly but not rush. If something goes wrong you must start again, there is no quick fix. If Sven split his rock in the wrong way or cracked the whole thing wide open he’d have had to get a new rock and start again, or if Brian and his volunteers had split the 8 tonne oak log in the wrong way he’d have to order another one. It’s the same with this type of filmmaking. As a result you very quickly learn the best ways to minimise the risks. I find this reliance on craft and process very inspiring and is what the manifesto is all about.

The rule that Happy Christmas breaks most significantly is the inclusion of non-diegetic music. I’m very aware that at times the music is doing a lot of the work in Happy Christmas. I’ve got no problem with that but I am keen to work without that luxury and see how the power of the work is affected.

Why does filmmaking need this kind of thing? Personally, I feel that digital filmmaking has caused many filmmakers to ease up on their rigour, discipline and commitment to the art form that film affords.

I think it was David Lynch who said that digital filmmaking has removed the collective adrenalin rush that you would get on a film set when the camera starts running. There’s a formality that’s been removed (certainly at the lower budget end of things) and there has been a distinct change in terms of style. It’s not necessarily a bad change but it’s certainly a change.

Originally I wrote the manifesto for me. It’s always about my work. I wouldn’t dream of telling someone else that they have to do something in a certain way and in fact very often I don’t want anyone doing the things that I’m doing. I’ll walk away from a process if too many people are doing it.

I’m contrary by nature and I try and use this to my advantage in my work. I’d just shot a feature on digital video like half the world had just done. The opportunities seemed boundless, equipment cheap, light and easy to operate and everyone was saying that film was dead. So I decided that I wanted to shoot a feature film on 16mm but I was very aware that such an endeavour could end up bankrupting me, so I wrote down a list, pieces of advice to myself to keep me focused during pre-production and production when things can get a bit exciting. After that I thought why not publish them? Why not turn it into a statement of intent and try and drum up some interest for the work? But I never wanted the manifesto to be just written on the page so I made sure I’d already made a film according to the rules by the time I published it. The actual manifesto is a real tangible thing too. It was typed up on a 50 year old typewriter, photographed on a 30 year old Pentax on Ilford HP5, hand processed in an ancient bakelite tank in my room, washed and dried in the bathroom, then finally digitally scanned and virtually distributed. It took a long time. Obviously I could have done the whole thing in Photoshop in a bout 10 minutes but that’s not the point. As you say, it’s about rigour, discipline and commitment.

Which filmmakers currently active are making cinema you believe is at least in the spirit of your manifesto, even if they aren’t following the rules?

I saw Ben Rivers’ Two Years at Sea and also Grant Gee’s Patience After Seabald last year and both of those films made me excited in a way that I hadn’t been since I first saw Festen.

There is much in common in terms of ambition, engagement with form and a seeming agitation with current cinema, that was found in the Dogme 95 manifesto, to what extent is that an influence and how fundamentally do you feel yours differs?

Dogme 95 changed the way I saw everything. When I first watched Festen I knew immediately that I had witnessed something that was so imperfect it was sublimely beautiful and human. I was about a year into an edit for a 70 minute film and having seen Festen I threw the edit away and decided to do a new one in a week. I failed. It was always going to be impossible. I had about 40 hours of footage and it ended up taking about a month, but nevertheless the energy that the new edit had came from Dogme 95 and its ethos. It felt like they were making films in real time, like we were watching the start of the film in the cinema while they were still working on the end of it somewhere. I loved the energy, the immediacy and the mistakes.

I thought, ‘I can make mistakes like that’ and it was very inspiring. It had a complete ‘fuck your way of doing things’ edge to it. I was working in Soho at the time and I quite often felt like saying that to people around me.

A few people have mentioned the Dogme 95 manifesto when discussing SLDG 13 and there are obvious areas of overlap but I also think mine is at odds with much of what they wanted to do, generally and in terms of specific rules. I think they were looking to destroy artifice whereas I want to embrace it, because it is surely indestructible when it comes to film.

How much of it is a challenge and provocation to yourself as a filmmaker?

That’s what it’s all about. If it’s not hard work and you’re not leaving part of yourself in it then it’s not worth doing in my opinion. Sometimes I’ll do something with a workflow that is incredibly demanding and time-consuming and the final result may be indistinguishable from how it would have been if I’d taken a more painless modern or digital route…but there is a difference, I don’t always know what it is, maybe it’s imperceptible but it is there and people recognise it and they connect with it. For me it’s bordering on transcendental.

I like a challenge. I always like to be challenged and tested. There is no creativity without limitation. I’ve never understood the idea of watching films to be purely entertained. I like being challenged, confused, frustrated, bored, outraged, mislead. I want to be challenged whether I’m making or watching films. As far as I’m concerned being entertained is a by-product not an end in itself.

Which filmmaker, alive or dead, would you like to see make a film under those conditions?

This is difficult to answer. I’d like to see anyone who presently feels disconnected from the art form try this old/new way of working. It’s reconnected me.

Why voiceovers?

To make people embrace alternatives to dialogue. Often dialogue recording compromises low-budget shooting and by the time the film is finished it doesn’t even sound that good, quite often it’s a case of damage limitation by the time you get to the mix. It also gives the opportunity to the filmmaker to say more than a character may say through dialogue. Obviously the subtext of dialogue is powerful and a great amount of restraint and skill is required to get that right but I like the existential opportunity enforced voiceover affords the author. Having said that when I got to the end of doing Cape Cornwall Calling / All The White Horses – I realised that I didn’t have any voiceover in it. I’d already broken rule 8 of the manifesto so I had to have some voiceover. I was really stuck until a friend suggested that I just read the title out. I like simple work arounds.

Insisting that the film is shot silently is quite daunting really. The shot will be easier to execute and the filmmaker can spend all their time concentrating on the pictures (almost like a photographic shoot) but the post-synching process would be a nightmare if the soundtrack is wall to wall dialogue. So I wanted to offer an alternative…use voice over to tell the story. It requires much less synching. Obviously you don’t want the voiceover to say, “This happened, then this happened, then she did this and he did that”. Voiceover can be awful if it’s too expositional but well written voice can be wonderful. I watched Withnail & I a couple of days ago for the first time in years; the v/o in that is pure poetry.

What are your ambitions for the manifesto?

I’d like it to simply inspire some celluloid film production at the perceived lower end of the industry. I’d like people to realise that it’s not as expensive and inaccessible as they may think. The money you spend on a limited amount of stock will be offset by the amount of time you save in the edit that you would normally spend contemplating the near infinite options offered you by hundreds of hours of digital files. But it’s not exclusively about film. You can shoot digitally as long as you adhere to the rest of the rules. It’s about stripping things back, getting away from the normal toys and the tricks and embrace some different ones and establishing whether or not there is anything at the centre of the sickly blancmange that constitutes most film. I’ll still shoot the majority of my work digitally but the discipline of shooting film has already improved my digital work. For one I don’t shoot half as much footage. In fact I limit myself to a memory card per shoot now.

Describe the relationship between Cornwall and the manifesto, landscape is a key theme in your work it seems.

I’ve always been fascinated by landscape. I’m never happier than when moving through a landscape in a car or on a train. All my favourite photographers are landscape photographers, but not pure landscape. I’m interested in the effects humans have and have had on landscape. The furniture they create in the wild, the scars they leave, I’m interested in the absence of humans in a landscape that they have altered. Cornwall has a lot of that. It’s full of decay, ghosts, melancholia. Film for me is about loss. It’s a past tense art form. It preserves things that have gone. It is the language of our dreams and memories. My dreams and memories are full of Cornwall and I often see it in terms of landscape. Everywhere you look down here there is a big horizon. They always feature on my films.

Finally, what are your feelings about Happy Christmas now, in the aftermath of the manifesto, and what are your hopes for the film?

I think I have established a way of working through that film that is very exciting for me, and when a new idea pops up that suits that form I will use it again. It’s so much fun because of its immediacy. I may change the format though. Maybe do it all the same but use a flip camera or a camera phone, or a single lens, in order to speed up the process even more. Or even write a manifesto for this type of production. The film itself really splits audiences and I think that’s inevitable. Some people get drawn in by the slow pace while some seem to get bored by it. The film is an experiment and continues to be so in the way it is seen. We are giving it away for free because we can afford to. We don’t owe anybody anything as it was all made on the understanding that it may not go anywhere. As luck would have it it did go somewhere; it turned into a finished self-contained narrative film that is beginning to find an audience. It’s there to be watched, downloaded, embedded, burned to DVD, copied and sold…whatever people want to do with it is fine with me as long as people get to see it as it’s a very special film to me. I wish there was some kind of framework in this country were artists could receive a minimal subsidy on the proviso that they gave their work away for free. I think this would work brilliantly with film.

Mark displays a commitment to both experimentation with form and a desire to reach new audiences through the possibilities afforded by the Internet that is refreshing, and thankfully burgeoning among some really interesting filmmakers. What sets him apart is the way he marries these commitments not only to his desire to remain local, but to use his locale to create increasingly cinematic narratives. More of this across the board could see ‘regional filmmaking’ dropping those ludicrous quotation marks and becoming the fascinating genre it has the potential to be.

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