In Isla Badenoch’s The Elvermen, fish are the size of men and men are of mythical proportions. The film (which premiered on June 5, 2021 at Sheffield DocFest), was shot in a narrow window of time, between March and May, on the moonlit banks of The River Severn. Running at a sparse fourteen minutes, The Elvermen is a lingering and compassionate investigation of the centuries-old tradition of baby eel (Elver) fishing in South West England, led by the charming figure of Elver Dave.

Badenoch had originally pitched the idea for the film at Sheffield Doc Society’s Meet Market a few years earlier, to an enthusiastic reception. Her proposal was simple – “the Elver are critically endangered and there were all these bizarre stories being thrown about and I just felt there must be something here. And then I discovered all these old ‘Countryfile’ tapes which always seemed to feature some celebrity chef or well-known figure but never the fishermen themselves. I was like, who are those men? And what is their story?”

What began as a fairly run-of-the-mill curiosity project soon unfurled into part character study, and part illumination of an often-misunderstood rural tradition.

“There’s a massive misconception about what they do. A lot of people think that because they operate at night, because there is a black market and because a lot of the Elvermen are working class, that it must be illegal. In fact, the whole conservation effort depends on them”.

She found her central figure, Elver Dave through his active Twitter presence and persuaded him of her vision – “Dave had a very real way of speaking about it [Elvering] – and was invested in making a film that showed the reasons behind the tradition”. The final piece of the puzzle slotted into place when Badenoch managed to get cinematographer Anna MacDonald on board as well.

“I convinced Anna to come out in the middle of the night with me, down by a river in Gloucester. It was in April, but it was about 20 degrees in the middle of the night, a full moon – it was beautiful. We shot a lot of the footage that you see in the film on that night – all these hidden characters on the riverbanks, the head torches coming on as it grew darker, the different voices”.

Final 1

Courtesy of: Doc Society

With any project of this nature, the complications were manifold. Before Badenoch could shoot in the small seasonal window afforded to her, extreme flooding scuppered her plan, followed by a personal loss, Brexit fallout and finally the pandemic.

“Documentaries are always hard to make” Badenoch concedes, but in many ways, these unforeseen events gave the film a newfound direction and impetus.

“It ended up being far more mixed media than we were expecting. In my mind, it was going to be far more crafted to the hand-held [camera style]. But the observational footage works so much better – it’s raw and tells a story and gives a real energy to what the Elvermen are doing.

I always wanted the feeling of descending into a magical world because that’s the feeling we got when we were with Dave and his van, driving out into this landscape. There was the mythology of the men too, because they’re these crazy figures with head torches and coded language and huge nets but they’re also Dave – working in a print factory, with a heavy South West accent and great banter on the phone.

It was balancing those two worlds and showing that both are as important as the other. The mysticism as well as the mundane”.

If it sounds almost poetic, it’s because it is. Badenoch’s meticulous handling of the subjects paired alongside Anna MacDonald’s sleepy cinematography produces a film that feels both grounded and elegiac. Or, as Badenoch succinctly puts it –

“I’m really into that micro, macro thing. [Because of Brexit] the Elvermen’s life is now as critically endangered as the fish they hunt. Shooting it, me and Anna focused on those micro, macro moments, and the synchronicity of the fish and fishermen. That’s why we shot the fish as though they were huge mythical creatures and did the same with Dave – he’s like this big mythical guy and also just a bloke that works in a factory and goes out with his sons”.

Final 2

Courtesy of: Doc Society

This year has seen an outpouring of films centering on figures in landscape – Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, and most prominently, Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari . The Elvermen is both part of this movement and distinct from it – its brevity and attention to detail aligning it more aesthetically with the work of Andrea Arnold and Jane Campion. When asked about her influences, Badenoch admitted,

“I’m always drawn to stories that are quiet and powerful. I’m drawn to people that are living their lives passionately and with a strength, but without shouting about it. I’ve lived in cities and abroad a lot, and I think I’m always drawn to landscapes and the characters arising from them”.

She cites Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild and Tamta Gabrichidze’s The Trader as influences for the film and references Chloé Zhao’s docu-film method of combining real people and actors.

It’s certainly refreshing to see the English landscape portrayed in the same kind of mystic proportions as the American landscape so often is. As a part of the ‘UK Competition’ strand at this year’s Sheffield DocFest, The Elvermen offers both a fresh perspective of rural England and an urgent portrait of a hidden community on the brink of unrest.

The Elvermen is available to view here via Sheffield DocFest until 13.31 on Tuesday 8th June. To discover more about Isla Badenoch and The Elvermen please visit her website.