In Decasia, experimental American filmmaker Bill Morrison explored the fragility of film by looking at decomposing celluloid. Here in The Miners’ Hymns, he does something very similar but on a grander scale. By slowing down archive footage of the mining communities in the North-West of England, and pairing them neatly with a melancholic score from Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, he throws some light on the fragility of history, and the importance of its industrial communities. The editing and tone, however, remains morose and plodding, and would have benefited from a lightness of touch that, here missing, rendered the film almost funereal. As the last of the Durham mining pits was closed in 1992, The Miners’ Hymns can be seen as a creative, hypnotic, but ploddingly melancholic film of a funeral.
The film opens with a helicopter shot over a particular part of Britain, captured on film here in its slightly grainy brightness, and focusing in on a giant Asda. We find out that this was once the sight of the Ryhope Colliery, the central area of industry for the region for seventy years. The film continues in a similar vein until it reverts to old footage from the last hundred years, sourced from National Coal Board promotional films and British television news footage of miner’s strikes. Some of the footage is very beautiful, some very jarring. Morrison made it quite clear how vital the coal mining industry was for certain areas of the North-West, and follows its trajectory on film from early grainy shots of fairly hazardous-looking mines to miners strikes in 1984, when Thatcher’s government spelt out the end of the industry. The film lays on the point without focus or direction, but it was the lack of humour which I really felt was missing from the piece. Black humour – such an essential element of the British condition – could have brought this film out from the murky depths of chiaroscuro shots and its melancholy soundtrack, and captured some of the vitality of the communities it was trying to celebrate.
This is not to say that the film wasn’t creative or engaging. The collaboration between Jóhannsson and Morrison was an interesting one, partly because, as we found out in the Q & A afterwards, Jóhannsson wrote the music first, and Morrison edited the film footage around it. The final effect is a moody, darkly sinister orchestral piece, aided by the fact that it was recorded at Durham cathedral. Jóhannsson went on to tell us that he was inspired by “the sacred music of the brass bands” and there is a strongly liturgical feel to the soundtrack’s epic rise and fall. The Icelandic composer has clearly researched the sounds of the area’s traditional colliery bands, and the music is a fitting tribute. The film’s focus on the Durham Miners’ Gala – an annual meeting which occurred from the nineteenth-century to the Thatcher era, and brought together mining communities and union activists – is an interesting focal point, as it focuses the link between the film’s images and its music; the Miners’ Gala was famed for its brass bands and carnival atmosphere. Jóhannsson later describes the style of music in this film as “happy”, which got a chuckle from the audience. It some ways I can see what he means: the film’s crescendo into the track “The Cause of Labour is the Hope of the World” is as uplifting as you’re going to get in these 52 minutes of film.
The Miners’ Hymns is a clearly creative and engaging collaboration with much to say about the values and lifeblood of a bygone industry, which unfortunately loses itself in pomp and solemnity.
This film review appears on the Cinevue website.