Tribeca Film Festival 2011

The Miners' Hymns

by Sachyn Mital

25 April 2011

The Miners' Hymns issues a silent yet evocative reminder about labor economy.

The Miners' Hymns

Director: Bill Morrison

Just about thirteen months ago, the company Massey Energy made its name world famous when an unfortunate tragedy occurred at one of their coal mines in West Virginia. Twenty-nine people lost their lives in an explosion. Massey, with its repeat violations, and other companies, through the practice of mountaintop removal, have been problematic for the universal image of the laborious miner. Pollution of the water table in West Virginia has pitted families against members over one of the communities’ few viable occupations. But without our miners’ tireless and dangerous work, our country, as well as other ones, would never have achieved the modern industrial state, let alone reached the industrial revolution.

The Miners’ Hymns by Bill Morrison combines archival footage from various British sources to stir up some melancholy for the heyday of mining. This film takes primarily black and white footage placed (sensationally if not accurately) chronologically to show the routine of the miner by day and the overall trend of mechanization in mining itself. Even without having previous knowledge of the film, a viewer of Morrison’s careful selection will come away understanding the strong and cohesive narrative. Miners move from home to workplace with apparent uniformity to their actions. But there is a moment a worker is free from the Taylorism as he kisses a lantern for good luck. Scenes of undulating coal and giant cogs turning transform into trucks involved in large scale mining.
These specific miners are from the Durham coalfield area in the Northeast UK. At the beginning and near the end of the film are two aerial segments that contrast the past and present Durham area. What was once the pride of Durham has now become parking lots, malls and football stadiums. Where towns had once supported miners with parades for unions with power (“Miners fights your Battles” read one sign) the history is displaced. Even the protests and conflict which erupted in the ‘80s as the miners’ unions faced collapse and braced themselves against Thatcher’s free market agenda.

However, it was not apparent what the contextual history of the clashes was unless one was familiar with coal-mining history (particularly in the UK). This is not to say the film is not effective story-telling. But so far removed from that era, I found it became hard to share in the wistfulness or then understand and appreciate the outrage. Whether people outside England will comprehend the archival content is difficult to say in light of this part’s localized nature. It may not help that the film originally had a very specific audience; it was produced for the Durham International Festival.

It is only in the final portion, where we revisit the community, that the film’s significance becomes clear. Building off silent archival footage, Morrison required a score, for which he collaborated with impressive Icelandic composer, Jóhann Jóhannsson. Few would consider Jóhannsson a bringer of jollity, since his instrumental music is somber, stark and sometimes sinister, but also convey’s grandeur at times. His score here is not far removed from his other work; there is little levity in the orchestral work, but it did not achieve the same gravitas as frequently found on his albums until the final song (“The Cause of Labour is the Hope of the World”). Here Morrison’s curation is aided by Jóhannsson’s dignified composition to majestically illuminate a more universal message.

We remember that our own pride about the contribution of miners has been forgotten and, in this transgression, trade unions’ value has also diminished. Miners’ history has become relegated to nostalgia if it ever comes up in a discussion over clean energy and climate change. Meanwhile trade unions, from Wisconsin’s educators to Hungarian’s against austerity measures, continue to battle for legitimacy in the globalizing world.

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