Exclusive: Interview with Mark Jenkin for BFI Film on Film Festival

Will there be another Film on Film Festival? (Picture: BFI)

Mark Jenkin, BAFTA-winning director, speaks exclusively to Cinamore about the beauty of film and the upcoming BFI Film on Film Festival.

The inaugural BFI Film on Film Festival takes place at BFI Southbank from 8-11 June, where audiences can experience screenings of highly flammable nitrate prints for the first time in the UK for over a decade, including the oldest film print ever shown to UK audiences: a 91-year-old print of Alexander Korda’s Service for Ladies.

The festival begins on 8 June with an original nitrate print of Mildred Pierce, alongside a world premiere of a short film, A Dog Called Discord, commissioned for the festival directed by Mark Jenkin.

Closing the season on the 11 June is a pristine, original release Technicolour dye-transfer print of Steven Spielberg‘s Jaws in 70mm.

The BFI Film on Film Festival celebrates the physical materiality of film. Like the experience of listening to a great album on vinyl, part of the pleasure and meaning of watching a film projected comes from its different look, sound and emotional impact. 

Echoing this, Mark Jenkin told Cinamore at the launch of the BFI Film on Film Festival event about how the filmmaker interacts with celluloid.

Mildred Pierce opens the season with a nitrate print (Picture: Warner Bros.)

“While I’m shooting, I hear that bit of film go through the camera, quite often right next to my head. I hear it go through, and every frame has its moment of capturing light.

“I have a very intimate relationship with everything I shoot, which means when it comes to the edit, I’m very attached to all of the footage.”

As a generation of young filmgoers grows up possibly having never seen a film projected on its celluloid material, this festival is designed to deliver a unique, cinema-based experience that enables audiences to enjoy analogue filmmaking in all its glory, exploring its aesthetics and celebrating the skills required to work with it, from seeing how a film reel is loaded, to seeing the differences between film stocks from Super 8, 9mm and ranging up to 70mm and screenings of vintage dual-strip 3D productions, for which separate 35mm left and right-eye reels are projected simultaneously onto a unique silver screen.

Speaking specifically about his short, A Dog Called Discord, the filmmaker, known for shooting on analogue with Bait and Enys Men, opened up about the lifespan of film, where its preservation and archive is now as important as the film itself. 

“As soon as the film finished, people were saying, ‘Is that the only 35mm print because we need to get it barcoded for the archive?’, and you think, ‘Oh God, that’s going to stay, that’s going to be there for a hundred years.”

Film lasts a lifetime (Picture: BFI)

His short, a documentary of kinds, begins as Mark sifts through the film he processed, revealing an image of a dog immortalised in its plastic frame.

“That dog had been stuck maybe for twenty years in that cartridge as a latent image and had almost been missed. I don’t remember why I was in the studio late that night, but if I hadn’t, that dog would probably still be in that film cartridge.”

The dog becomes a metaphor for the reels of film sitting dormant globally with stars of a bygone era frozen in 24 frames a second for repeated viewing, with each screening affecting the frame with dust, dirt, or scratches.

“There was a moment when a friend of mine, who lives in Japan, sent me a role of a film that was shot in the 90s, which features me, which I put in the film.

“And I thought, is my ego big enough, I’m going to actually put a shot of me just looking younger in the film? Well yeah! Because I’m making this film, and I’m talking about my life and my childhood, and when the BFI asked me to make a film, I knew I couldn’t make a straight documentary about this subject, so that gives you the freedom to make a film about yourself, which seems like a very different thing to do.

Cinema is a projection of a time gone by, or the world around us (Picture: BFI)

“But then all films, especially if you work as I do, where I write, direct and edit, and do a lot of stuff myself. There’s so much of me in my films; I’m constantly immortalising my thoughts, opinions, and state of mind at a certain time.”

The festival will also contain a special presentation of Charlie Shackleton’s The Afterlight, which weaves together fragments from the history of cinema, where actors from different eras and countries are spliced together with one thing in common: they’re all dead. Done to reflect the inevitable decay of all materials, The Afterlight has been designed to deliberately accumulate wear and tear, changing irrevocably from every projection.

2023 as a year also marks the centenary of 16mm as a film stock. The introduction of 16mm brought a revolution in filmmaking as 16mm cameras, and the stock was far cheaper and lighter than 35mm. It changed how films could be made – and who could make them – and brought new voices. Relatively lightweight 16mm projectors also meant that film projection was not restricted to cinemas but could be set up in schools, village halls, workplaces and even people’s homes.

“It is about aesthetics, but it’s also that thing of limitation”, explains Mark when asked how to justify the feeling of shooting on film.

“It’s not just aesthetics because I’m convinced that digital technology and the people who use it very brilliantly can inevitably replicate the look of the film.”

Film invokes feelings and can manipulate us, much like how filmmakers manipulate celluloid (Picture: Universal)

“You consider everything because it has a cost, which sounds elitist, but it has an upfront cost. The older you get, the more you realise it. The only thing in the world you’ve actually got is time.

“That’s the only thing you’re born with. It’s the only thing you have, and as you get older, it becomes more and more valuable. That’s one of the things I love about film. And I’m not prepared to wade through endless amounts of footage; I would much prefer to make decisions quickly while I’ve got a camera in my hand to limit myself in the edit and to make me work quicker.

“It forces me to have an upfront cost. I don’t think it’s any more expensive than shooting digitally.”

The festival will allow audiences to see first hand the beauty of celluloid filmmaking practices, and to grasp the cost of analogue or digital, and how each offers a differing experience for the viewer.

Tickets are on sale now for the BFI Film on Film Festival at BFI Southbank from 8-11 June, and A Dog Called Discord will be available to watch on the BFI Player for free from 8 June.

By Conor Riley

Conor is the Founder and Editor for Cinamore, a publication focused on giving power back to journalists. As a portmanteau of the word 'Cinema' and the Italian word for love 'Amore', Cinamore aims to highlight the love that we all carry for the art of the moving image.

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