Filming fishermen working on dark Gloucestershire waterways at night is challenging enough technically for most cinematographers. But this feat, brought off with panache by “The Elvermen” DP Anna MacDonald – competing in the Camerimage Documentary Shorts section this year with an atmospheric account of obsessive amateur eel hunters – was just half the battle.
A substantial additional challenge, says MacDonald, is that the eels in question, a catch once prized at more than their weight in gold, are tiny, nearly transparent offspring “like the size of a glass noodle.”
They’ve been known as elvers for millennia and just about everything about them is mysterious – even how the spawn of the European eel ended up in Britain’s West Country is a tale for the ages (and they apparently have a different name from eels because the young of the species are so distinct in appearance from adults that it was believed they were a separate species).
So it was important to director Isla Badenoch, working with Glass Onion Films, to capture on screen the magical mystique of the tradition of eel hunting, MacDonald says.
“She felt like the back story of the elver is like they’re very other-worldly so that was basically how we wanted to capture it – following that.”
Thus they set about figuring out how to get the slithering creatures a fine, flattering close-up.
Knowing they did not want to shoot through a microscope, says the Canadian-American DP, they eventually settled on a Red Dragon camera and a 50mm Arri macro lens and a technique of filming backlit elvers from below through glass, she says.
Lighting the nocturnal slitherers, which works in a way that also catches floating elements in the water around them, creating an other-worldly effect, had to be done in a way that blended in with the footage of fishermen working in the dark, only illuminated by their headlamps – and occasionally their mobile phones.
“It was quite fun, though – and very experimental,” MacDonald says. “And what was amazing about it was Isla and I had one moonlit night with Dave and then we had lots that was happening.”
Climate change was driving flooding in Gloucester, says MacDonald, and Brexit was pending, which upended a centuries-old trade for elvers with Europe. To make matters more complicated still, elvers were listed as endangered for a time and hunting them was politically delicate – though the filmmakers point out that their subjects are often supplying the young eels to groups who are seeding populations abroad that have dwindled.
From a visual point of view, at least, the fisherman whose story drives the film is ideal. A quiet, even-tempered sort, Dave, the protagonist the director and MacDonald settle on, is, fortunately, fond of checking in with his mates via phone, which illuminates him regularly in a pink-blue glow as he sets about running a large net rig through the waters – the only legal way to hung elvers in the U.K.
“The Elvermen” follows the resourceful hunter, whose day job in a print factory in Gloucester is just a preview to his real passion – one shared by a score of others who spend their nights when the River Severn spring tide is right trying to divine the spot where their nets will fill with kilos of eel fry.
The drive of the hunters, along with the opaque world they inhabit as they take their chances on striking it rich after a nightlong stake-out is echoed in the audio track, crackling with phone calls of frustration and joy.
MacDonald, who has filmed dozens of shorts, is now at work on a feature-length project shooting in The Philippines, a road movie hybrid doc focused on climate refugees called “ASOG,” directed by Sean Devlin.