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The Miners’ Hymns: An Audio-Visual Masterpiece


Serendipity. While in New York City last Saturday, hoping to kill time between a charity wine tasting in the afternoon and a dinner with friends in the evening, I skimmed through a copy of the L Magazine on the Subway. A film review caught my eye: an hour-long movie by “experimental filmmaker” Bill Morrison, entitled The Miners’ Hymns, was playing at the Film Forum, very close to and just after the wine tasting, finishing just before and within walking distance of my dinner destination as well. (Unveiled last year at the Tribeca Film Festival, released almost a year ago in the UK, alongside the soundtrack on Fat Cat Records, The Miners’ Hymns has only just made it to an American big screen.) A few hours later, I left the Film Forum emotionally shattered by Morrison’s visual masterpiece and no less so by the soundtrack, courtesy of Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson.

The American-born Morrison, for those (like me) who had not previously encountered his oeuvre, specializes in the re-editing of archival footage, by which he creates some sort of interpretive context. At the Film Forum, the 52-minute The Miners’ Hymns was preceded by two previous Morrison shorts, Outerborough and Release, and while I missed the former, I was instantly captivated by the latter, which plays with footage of crowds awaiting Al Capone’s release from prison, frequently splitting the screen in half, bringing mirrored images in on themselves, creating something of a hallucinatory effect that, by repeating certain images that would normally have been but passing shots, causes us to study them and ask questions. The confident little kid who ran round to the front of the crowd that had formed as if for a giant school picture… Could he still be alive, I wondered, allowing that almost everyone else in the footage has almost certainly passed away? With the footage set to commissioned music, there is no dialogue, no voice-over, no subtitles, and therefore no official narrative. It’s the kind of effected footage such as frequently shows up behind rock bands performing on large stages, and I couldn’t help but think of James Herbert’s R.E.M. film Left of Reckoning, which used a similar but different method of re-editing existing film footage to force us to look at it in a different way.

The official trailer for The Miners’ Hymns

Morrison’s chosen process takes on epic proportions with The Miners’ Hymns. His “wordless documentary,” as he has opted to call it, begins with a helicopter flyover of the Durham coastline of North East England. By adding his own footage to that which he has excavated from archives, Morrison is breaking with his tradition, and he does so again by including a sub-title to note that the site of a sprawling modern car park is that of a former colliery, Silksworth. It’s evident that we are in for a tour of a world that no longer exists.

Morrison’s helicopter eventually touches down and the colour screen gives way to black and white, where it remains for almost the duration. The footage he brings back to life and then redesigns to suit his artistic purpose dates back as far as a shot of miners leaving the coal face from 1900. The most consistently used element though is that of the Durham miners on one of their annual gala parades: the granite faces of the hardened workers (and the no-less chiseled impressions of their wives) are shown gathered at a rally, some of them suspiciously eyeing the roving movie camera as if Big Brother, though once the parade marches through the City streets and we see children dancing in formation, brass bands performing and a co-ordinated group of marchers carrying the vast banner of the Durham Miners Association (“Knowledge Is Power”) with evident pride, both the miners and the viewers lose their inhibitions and we settle in for the journey.

One of the happier images from The Miners’ Hymns: children dancing through the streets of Durham during a Miners’ Gala.

Was life better then, or now? Morrison doesn’t judge. But the footage of the miners at work pulls no punches about the physical demands of their job. We see a group of miners emerge, as if on cue, from terraced cottages on a hilltop street in the middle of the night, watch them light their hand-lamps with candles at the pit head, and then descend like sardines in primitive lifts into what soon looks like Dante’s Inferno as, crouched double into a crevice, we see one worker hack out the last of the coal with a pick-axe. (How long did it take that poor man to contract “black lung,” I wonder?) Narrow-gauge trains take the workers through underground tunnels that, one suspects, could collapse at any moment (a quick visit to the Durham Mining Museum website soon excavates the roll-call of deaths on the job, as well as a list of former collieries running well into the hundreds); machinery cuts away at the coal walls; pit ponies help transport the fossil fuel back to the trains before it is brought up to earth, where other workers separate the good from the bad, the latter, as we see from what may have been later footage, to be dumped on the beach, where children pan for it amongst the pebbles and bring home their family’s fire supplies via their own horses, and children from two different eras are shown running up and rolling down the slag heap for fun.

Kids playing on the slag heap: a time-honored tradition.

It’s uncomfortable viewing, especially for those of us who know what must follow as surely as the night shift follows the day: footage from the strike of 1984, when the Thatcher government’s decision to shut down so many collieries resulted in the most violent conflict of recent times, as close to regional civil war as Britain has come in my lifetime. Sure enough, Morrison hones in on a fresh, modern(ish) scene of policemen erecting crowd barriers, their flat-capped chief directing their traffic, the crowds of striking miners and their families gathering for the dawn stand-off – and then the inflammatory sight of a charter bus, grated shields across its windows, bringing scabs into the pit under enormous police protection. Morrison doesn’t tell us that this is what is happening; I only know the specifics because I was witness to this part of history, not merely from the news media but having visited a colliery in Yorkshire during this period, when bribes in the shape of Christmas bonuses and other financial incentives broke the will of the hardest hit of the poverty-stricken strikers and in turn broke the back of the strike itself. The fury of the remaining striking miners, who are restrained from getting close to the bus itself, turns to those who have restrained them, the police, and the inevitable violence ensues: we see young men throwing bricks and other objects, we see the police charging on horse-back and on foot, we see hand-to-hand fighting and we see a policeman beating a fallen striker relentlessly with his baton.

The official press shots from The Miners’ Hymns don’t include any of the film’s images from thesStrike of 1984-85. I found this picture from a book of photographs taken around the Easington Colliery in East Durham during the Strike. Read more about No Redemption here.

I am older now than I was in 1984, and I try with every might of my supposed maturity to see the policemen and the scabs alike as mere pawns in a game, everyday people doing what it takes to feed their families. But though I can at least empathize with the miners who decided to break the strike and return to work after almost a year with no income, I find I still have no such compassion for the police, who acted shamelessly in 1984 as an arm of the State rather than as a civilian force, and it is all I can do not to urge on the protestors to cause sufficient harm as to declare their own (minor) victory for the day. I’m not proud of myself for doing so, but emotions ran high then and they remain so now. I am evidently not alone in my visceral reaction; as Jóhannsson’s score settles down into a new (visual) theme, I hear someone behind me in the sparsely attended theater crying openly.

The modern-day flyover resumes and with it the roll call of closed pits; the Government, as we know, won this battle. The Hylton Colliery (which actually closed in 1979, prior to the great Strike, though that doesn’t less the cost of the lives laid down over the years by workers as young as 14) appears to be either the location for a group of super-stores or else just a vast rural warehouse location, further evidence that Britain’s former manufacturing society appears to have given way to a service-based economy instead. But then we see what was built over the former Monkwearmouth Colliery: the “Stadium of Light,” home to Sunderland Football Club, a glistening modern Cathedral to the British national game, and it raises a new set of questions. What is a better use for our land: a coal pit or a football ground? Where would we sooner spend our Saturdays: underground, digging out coal with a pick-axe, or above ground, watching a game of football? But were our communities better off with a certain equality among the working classes, and a relative parity between their wages and those of the football players who were drawn from their ranks, or are we better off living in a service economy as slaves to the entertainment industry, where we idolize sporting mercenaries whose annual salaries are considerably more than most of us will earn in a lifetime?

Miner at work.

I was never one who believed in the Right To Work; as much as anything, I have always believed in the Right Not To Work, at least not to work in a back-breaking job for which no amount of money could ever fully compensate, and which only serves to denude our planet of its natural fossil fuels and enrich big business in the process. But I always supported the Miners Strike because, as Morrison’s archived images of the terraced streets emptying out for the night shift demonstrate, entire towns depended for their very existence on their local coal pit, and the Thatcher Government’s wholesale closing of the mines ensured that such communities were devastated in perpetuity. And as the earlier footage of the miners’ galas reveals with equal certitude, the workers themselves may not have loved their lot in life, but they took pride in their work all the same. If their pits were no longer productive, or at least not cost-effective, then a gradual process of slowing down production, retraining the workers and properly financing their towns for new endeavors might at least have avoided the intense violence that accompanied the year-long Miners Strike. England’s prosperity was built on their labour after all and so, to paraphrase both the Smiths and Crass, the nation owed them a living. It owed them more than it left them with when the pits closed, that’s for certain.

The Miners’ Hymns closes with the finale to the bygone parade: its entrance into Durham Cathedral itself, the vast Durham Miners Association banner manipulated through the suddenly small wooden doors with the same sort of dexterity required to work in close quarters several hundred feet underground. The religious subtext to the movie has been evident throughout in the shape of Jóhannsson’s score, which melds the patriotic overtones of Holst with the instrumentation of the miners’ brass bands and the atmospheric symphonic intensity that appears to come so naturally to Icelandic musicians (and yes, I am thinking of Sigur Ros). Recorded in Durham Cathedral itself, the music occasionally appears heavy-handed – though that is probably down to Morrison’s decision to edit his film to match Jóhannsson’s every rhythmic emphasis – but mostly it succeeds in its intent of evoking grand emotions for a bygone era.

As it turned out, Jóhannsson’s score was performed live just this January 31st at the World Financial Center’s Winter Gardens, by the Wordless Music Orchestra, as an introduction to the Film Forum’s Bill Morrison presentation. (Three other Morrison films were shown over the following three nights at the Winter Gardens, one of them also with a live accompaniment.) I wish now that I had known enough in advance to attend. But I did not and that’s fine, too. Witnessing The Miners’ Hymns more or less on the fly, without expectations, allowed for one of the most intense artistic experiences of recent months. I have a new cinematographer to investigate. A new composer to follow. And a new favorite film, of sorts. Certainly, after The Miners’ Hymns, the idea of watching The Iron Lady seems suddenly redundant. If you want to know what the Reign of Thatcher wrought, this is your film.

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For greater insight into The Miners’ Hymns, read this interview with Bill Morrison.

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