'Seacoal' is screening tonight on More4 as the conclusion of their week-long season dedicated to the Amber collective. For more details please visit the Amber website – a link is provided at the end of this review.
Despite having formed in 1968, the Amber collective only made the move into feature film production with the release of Seacoal in 1986. As such this is clearly a key work amongst their output and one that paved the way for much of what was to come. The Amber template had in many ways been set over those preceding years – community involvement, documentary filmmaking, a focus on the traditional and the marginalised – but here it began to find a highly effective voice. In blending these themes and methods with a more traditional narrative approach the collective were able to make works of a more immediate nature and with greater widespread appeal. Indeed, the territory isn’t too far removed from that of many British filmmakers, Ken Loach being the most obvious example. Yet there’s something about Amber’s films which is somehow more authentic. The combination of 16mm film stock, the mixture of professional and non-professional actors, the unashamed use of documentary devices, the reliance of improvisatory methods and the collective’s own embedding within the communities they are recording all add up to cinema you can practically taste such is the realism.
In the case of Seacoal the focus is on the travelling community who worked a Lynemouth beach for the substance of the title – coal that had been dumped by the collieries and washed up by the sea. Amongst this backdrop we get the story of Betty (Amber Styles), a mother-of-one and divorcee who enters the community through her new man, Ray (Ray Stubbs). Their relationship is one of the two poles of Seacoal, the other being the more documentary elements in which their way of life is recorded. As we’ve come to expect from Amber there’s an equal level of observation and tenderness to both. On the one hand the dramas are allowed to feel incredibly real, aided immeasurably by the natural rhythms of the performers and the improvisatory methods employed. On the other we get a very simple exploration of the seacoalers and their day-to-day activities. At times Seacoal is simply given over to the filmmakers just taking it all in, pure observation akin to that witnessed in the Tyne documentary series and the collective’s other non-fiction works. Furthermore there’s never the sense that the two have been awkwardly shoehorned together. It’s abundantly clear that Betty serves as a kind of audience substitute - our way of getting to know and understand this community - yet she never feels like a mere ‘device’. On both sides of the actor/non-actor divide there’s a clear interaction that oftentimes it’s hard to tell what is drama and what is documentary. Interestingly, I’d only seen excerpts from Seacoal prior to viewing this disc and could have sworn that all of these moments were strictly factual: the conversations in the caravans, the chats down the pub, the seacoaling itself – all have the tang of pure authenticity.
This balance also prevents Seacoal from erring too much on the side of romance. Certainly, there’s a jaunty score and the characters are almost all lovely types, but the film never shies away from the important questions. We get a chance to see how the children cope, the conditions in which they live, the manner in which these people try simply to keep on going. And it’s an incredibly harsh way of life, an element we’re always reminded of so as to offset the lighter side. It’s worth a mention that members of the Amber team actually lived amongst the community during the film’s preparation and production, going so far as to buy a caravan on the beach on which they filmed, and no doubt this aided immeasurably in documenting these struggles and realities. Both the good and the bad are shown and, perhaps, ultimately it’s down to the audience to decide how well it comes across. There’s a very clear love on Amber’s part for the seacoalers, but also a documentarian’s eye for the bigger picture.
However, it should be remembered that Seacoal was the collective’s first feature and as such certain teething problems, if you will, do arise. Perhaps not from the more overtly documentary elements (hardly a surprise given their background), but the narrative does at times feel a little contrived. By being essentially plotless the film faces questions as to where exactly it’s going and where it will end. Thankfully Amber don’t go for the traditional method of simply winding things up by killing off one of the major characters (a cliché that’s ruined many a decent picture), but you do feel as though you’re being coerced into certain areas. Maybe this wouldn’t be a problem if Seacoal wasn’t so generously paced for the most part – the sudden shift in gear during the final third immediately makes you aware that this is a piece of fiction after all and it can’t help but break the mood. Similarly some of the characters – particularly Sammy Johnson’s company man – are a little too one-dimensional; from the very start it’s immediately apparent that he’s being pegged as the villain of the piece, there predominantly to provoke crisis and conflict. (And, to be honest, Johnson doesn’t really fit the villain type – he was far better suited in the role offered him in Amber’s subsequent In Fading Light.)
Yet whilst flawed Seacoal still has plenty to offer and reward. To label it simply as a ‘promising debut’ would be unfair, partially because the debut tag doesn’t really fit given Amber’s history up to this point, but mainly because it would downplay the insight and entertainment found within. The likes of In Fading Light, Eden Valley and their most recent feature Shooting Magpies would clearly build on Seacoal, yet it offers more than simply the seeds to those productions. That grit and authenticity which is so integral to so much of the collective’s output shines through and for that alone it must stand out as a highly impressive work. Perhaps it’s only the fact that better was come which makes Seacoal seem a comparatively lesser picture – in the context of British cinema, eighties or otherwise, it remains a key film.
Unlike all of Amber’s other releases to date, Seacoal is unfortunately without any additional material besides the accompanying booklet (Amber: A History, which is also included with all of the collective’s discs). In part this may be owing to their recent documentary The Pursuit of Happiness (screened as the opener of the current Amber season on More4) which took in the film’s production as part of its many strands and will be issued on disc, hopefully, at some point during 2009. Nonetheless Seacoal is still treated to the now standard high level of presentation and for this alone the DVD remains a worthwhile purchase. The print itself is in as fine a condition as should be expected from a 16mm source. There are instance of damage, but given that it is Amber themselves who are handling the film it is safe to assume that this is best one in existence and, moreover, has their approval. (You could perhaps argue that a major label handling of Seacoal would allow for some restoration work to take place, but this is unlikely to ever happen in light of the collective’s independent nature and so shouldn’t really be a consideration.) As with their other releases we are treated to the original formats of mono sound and 1.33:1 aspect ratio, whilst the disc itself is in DVD-R form, a decision Amber have reached so as to allow the vast majority of their output to be issued on disc over the next few years without unnecessary financial burden. It’s a decision that some may find off-putting perhaps, yet there’s been a number of precedents set amongst independent filmmakers in the past (Barney Platts-Mills, for example, issues his own films personally via his website, as does Alex Cox for his more obscure titles) and, more importantly, it doesn’t impact any immediate way on the film itself. Furthermore, I’m sure I’m safe in saying that we’d much rather have these films available than not at all. As a final note, it’s also worth noting that the disc comes with optional French subtitles though English ones are not present.
This disc is solely available through www.amber-online.com.
Last updated: 18/04/2018 21:25:11