I had no intention of writing about The Miners’ Hymns. My decision to watch it rested on its slender 52 minutes fitting the time I had available before leaving the house on New Year’s Eve. This was therefore the last film that I watched in 2017, and it haunted my entry into 2018, and has continued to resonate within me in the days since.
A poem without words, this film is a moving tribute to the mining communities of the northeast of England, and a lament to their fall. It opens, and later returns to, a contemporary aerial shot from a helicopter. It sweeps across the landscape, passing over steep cliffs, the green fields, and housing estates, to circle the locations of now closed pits. In contrast, the majority of the film is comprised of vintage black and white footage of the mine workers and their community. This includes stunning imagery shot within the mines themselves, men descending into the tunnels, picks striking at the coal face, carts revolving through the narrow twisty tracks. Meanwhile, children slide down the slag heaps, or play cricket in the streets. The footage is slowed and subtly edited together giving a sense of the constancy of the operations, the work as a continuing ritual through the ages, altered by technology but rooted to what has come before. Sometimes it is just the clothes worn that indicate that a cut from one shot to another spans multiple decades, elsewhere, horse drawn carts are transformed into modern machinery.
Beyond the film’s seamless editing, glue is provided by the elegiac score from composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. It binds the work together whilst contributing an emotional weight of its own, passing from haunting ambience, mournful vistas, until finally it soars. The electronic soundscape melds with church organ and brass instrumentation, linking it to the annual Durham Miners’ Gala, in particular the miners’ bands, and the Cathedral service that offers its conclusion. Today, while the pits are mostly gone, the Gala continues as a key event on the British trade union calendar, drawing 200,000 people in 2017, in part thanks to an appearance from Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
The vintage footage begins with a panorama of miners and their families as they gather at a rally for the opening of the aforementioned Gala. It knots together multiple decades, spanning from the birth of cinema to at least the 1960s. Men and women of all ages are present, from grandparents to children holding balloons. With their elegantly woven trade union banners raised high, dignified faces, hardened through labor, turn to stare into the camera. These people are fighters. A young boy eats a sandwich with one hand whilst gripping a toy pistol in the other. Perhaps he, or even his son, will be a miner in 1984, when we see strike breakers bused into the community and pitched battles between workers and the police.
The continuities of work, tradition, and community were ruptured by pit closures, hastened by the failure of the 1984 miners strike, itself a response to a politically motivated attack from a Conservative Government. The contemporary footage reveals new suburban housing, cars on roads, but the fields, parks and beaches are deserted. There is no hum of activity. Sites that should represent community, such as Sunderland Football Club, (the site of Monkwearmouth Colliery from 1885-1993) are conspicuously empty. The pit head of the former Ryhope Colliery (1857-1966) is a now a grey scar nestling beside an ASDA supermarket. The inclusion of this store, right at the start of the film, is no accident. This grocery chain is owned by Walmart, a multi-national corporation synonymous with low wages, hostility to trade union membership, and the bankrupting of mom and pop stores. Quite the opposite of the nationally owned, community sustaining mining industry that it has replaced.
A crescendo is reached in the film’s final sequence, which sees the miners exchange their blackened work wear for their Sunday suits as they march through the crowded streets of Durham. Colliery brass bands lead the way and banners billow in the wind. When the marchers enter the crowded, yet hushed, splendor of Durham Cathedral, the camera is positioned high above, as if God himself was taking stock of all we have seen, and blessing the miners’ with his approval. Then again, it takes no imagination to view the scene as a funeral, for an industry, for a community, for a way of life.
The Miners’ Hymns is implanted so firmly into the soil of England, literally and metaphorically, that it comes as a shock that its creation is the product of a collaboration between an American filmmaker and an Icelandic composer. A testament to a way of life now almost gone, its ghosts remain with you long after the film ends.