The Miners' Hymns Review
The very first Durham Miners’ Gala dates way back to 1869, kick-starting the annual ‘Big Meeting’ (as it is known locally) in which the county’s coalmining heritage is celebrated through banners, brass bands, speeches and a service at Durham Cathedral. Interrupted only by strike action and war, there have been a remarkable 126 such events to date, nowadays incorporated into the BRASS Durham International Festival. For the 2010 celebrations a multimedia event was commissioned, one that incorporate live musical performance and images from the area’s coalmining past to be staged at the Cathedral over two consecutive nights. Handling the music was Jóhann Jóhannsson, a multi-instrumentalist with a history in experimental and electronic composition as well as work in the theatre, contemporary dance and documentaries. The film side of things was dealt with by Bill Morrison, the New York-based creator of Decasia - arguably one of the finest cinematic works of this century’s first decade - as well as numerous multimedia and avant-garde pieces oftentimes to live accompaniment. For the festival Morrison ‘mixed’ the images live as Jóhannsson’s blend of percussion, brass and electronica played; later he would combine them as a finished film to be premiered at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. And so The Miners’ Hymns was born.
It’s important to stress the joint contribution of Morrison and Jóhannsson. Whilst the temptation may be to assign superiority to the former owing to his director’s credit, and therefore relegate Jóhannsson to mere accompaniment status, The Miners’ Hymns is very much a film by both. Indeed, the soundtrack has since been issued as a standalone CD release by FatCat Records, whilst the title itself emphasises the musical component. Moreover, there is a sense that the film itself has been ‘composed’, structured in a manner so that we see it as a series of movements, each demonstrating how firmly in tune Morrison and Jóhannsson are. There is no impression of one leading the other, but rather an equal standing; the music is as important as the images and vice versa, to an extent where to remove or diminish one would be to lessen the whole. Ultimately, The Miners’ Hymns is a genuinely collaborative effort.
The specificity of the commission - that it should be staged at a certain event and in a certain locale - is similarly important inasmuch as it arguably dictates more of The Miners’ Hymns than had it been produced as a standalone work intended simply for general cinematic consumption. The centrality of Durham to the Big Meeting is mirrored in its centrality to the film itself. This is a work specifically about the North East of England and its cultural and historical legacy through coalmining. Whilst the industry may now no longer exist within the county, it nonetheless has exerted - and no doubt continues a exert - a massive influence on its population demonstrated, most obviously, by the Gala itself. Morrison acknowledges this presence by utilising only footage shot in the region, whether it be from the archive or newly filmed material. Jóhannsson meanwhile included members of the local NASUWT Riverside Band in his ensemble to further the nod in this direction. You sense that The Miners’ Hymns therefore spoke very directly to its audiences over those two nights in July 2010, providing them with images and sounds that had become part of their shared memories and landscape - an integral connection unlikely to be repeated.
Yet if this DVD cannot hope to replicate the Durham Cathedral events, their sense of occasion and this very specific link between the work and the viewer, it nonetheless allows many of The Miners’ Hymns’ other qualities to shine through. We open in colour and contemporary footage: helicopter shots passing over the North East coastline before settling on the sites of former collieries. One has become an Asda, another a dry ski slope. Titles appear onscreen to inform us of their closing some decades ago and whilst the landscape betrays hints of its former existence, they remain just that: hints and echoes of a bygone time. As with Morrison’s previous works and their excavations of archives to reveal ghosts from the past, this cues up a delving into history as old black and white documentary footage is spliced and manipulated so that it complements Jóhannsson’s often elegiac tones. Images of previous Big Meetings are slowed to the point where we can read every face. The trip underground in a lift shaft becomes a phantom ride. Even the sea, lapping at a different pace thanks to Morrison’s influence, takes on a new ambience. Much of this material was gleaned from the National Coal Board’s film output, a mere fraction of which (they sponsored or produced over 900 titles in total) was anthologised on the BFI’s Portrait of a Miner volume. Occasionally a particular image will therefore seem familiar, albeit completely removed from its original narrator-led context. The Miners’ Hymns, without recourse to voice-over or text, reduces such moments to purely cinematic objects - crowds of hundreds, men at work, the might of machinery and industry - and, with it, gains a certain epic scale. These are sights to behold and be amazed by, all the more so with Jóhannsson’s careful emphasis applied on top.
Yet if this suggests a certain celebratory tone, such a mood is broken in the second half as Morrison’s archival focus shifts away the NCB Film Unit and onto the television news. Courtesy of BBC and Yorkshire TV images windows are boarded up and policemen arrive by the coachload. The miners of, presumably, the thirties and forties who toiled away underground in the early stages are replaced by those of the eighties locked in bitter dispute during the strikes of 1984 and 1985. The Miners’ Hymns can, of course, not neglect such a seismic period in the lives of those it puts onscreen and as such is as much a lament as it is a celebration. The personal history becomes indistinguishable from the political history and, fittingly, those images of police barriers being put up (and what they signify) carry as much weight as those of men at the coalface.
The result is a work that feels very British despite its two main creative voices being, respectively, American and Icelandic. In an interview with Sight & Sound Morrison admitted he knew little of the UK’s coalmining past prior to working on the project: “Of course I had an idea there were coal mines in England, and I was aware of was the big strike in ’84. But beyond that I certainly didn’t know about the Gala, the banners or the miners’ bands, any of this.” It’s an interesting angle to consider as arguably such a lack of background knowledge or previous engagement with the history of coalmining precludes The Miners’ Hymns from being a genuinely political work. Put simply, it’s not motivated by having a specific point to make, whether from an outsider perspective or not. (And of course, Barbara Kopple’s superb Harlan County USA has demonstrated that political films about the mining industry are not solely restricted to the UK.) Rather Morrison is a filmmaker who responds to the visual and this is what we get: almost a century of industry condensed into 50 often dazzlingly cinematic minutes. Would The Miners’ Hymns be a better film had it engaged more thoroughly with the political ramifications? Or does its alternate route of mixing the political with the historical, the sociological and the personal - a weave of associations and connections - make for an ultimately more satisfying blend? I guess you would have to ask the people of Durham, after all it is their past which has put onto the screen. I’m sure they approached the images and sequences with a combination of recognition, nostalgia and anger, their force being such that it would impossible not to connect with them in anything other than a highly personal manner. For the rest of us, especially outside the confines of the Big Meeting and Durham Cathedral, we may not react with quite this immediacy, but nonetheless can recognise the weight of this history and the fact that, for the people of the North East, it is now a closed book.
The Miners’ Hymns is released by the BFI on the 20th June onto DVD only. Given the short length of the main feature - just 50 minutes - a single-layer disc, encoded for Region 0 PAL, suffices to produce a perfectly good transfer. Morrison retained the 1.33:1 aspect ratio of his archive footage and so it is here. The quality, despite being taken from disparate sources, is often truly spectacular - I’ve no idea as to whether Morrison restricted himself to footage that was in pretty much pristine condition, but the consistency across the images in terms of clarity and detail is really quite wonderful. Of course, the use of the news footage from the 1984 miners’ strike means that some videotape enters the fray and as such we should expect the flaws that come with it. Meanwhile the newly shot aerial footage was filmed on 16mm and looks equally good; a fine level of grain is apparent and dirt or damage are non-existent. Note, however, that given Morrison’s manipulation of the footage - specifically the manner in which he slowed down certain sequences - does prompt some interlacing, although this was entirely unavoidable under the circumstances. Indeed, there is nothing to suggest that the actual transfer is anything less than excellent.
As for the soundtrack, here we find both DD5.1 and DD2.0 options for Jóhannsson’s score. In each case, and as we should expect from such a new production, there are no problems whatsoever. The richness of the music is discernible throughout, both during its immense swells and the quieter passages. Of course, it should also go without saying that the 5.1 option is the one to go for if you have the equipment. The Miners’ Hymns is no different from Morrison’s Decasia in terms of being as much a musical event as it is a visual one. As should be expected there are also no optional subtitles present as there are no spoken words throughout the film.
The additional on-disc features consist of excepts from Durham Cathedral event (totalling 12 minutes) that is effectively self-explanatory, an eight-minute interview with Morrison and Jóhannsson recorded just prior to the premiere in which they discuss the origins of the project and how they became involved, and a series of trailers. As well as one for The Miners’ Hymns itself we also find cross-promotional pieces for three of the BFI’s key documentary releases of the past few years: Portrait of a Miner (the first volume in their ongoing National Coal Board Film Unit Collection), Shadows of Progress and Tales from the Shipyard. The disc also comes with an accompanying 22-page booklet packed with the usual illustrations, credits, biographies (for Morrison and Jóhannsson) and transfer notes, plus essays by David Metcalfe (on the association between brass band music and the coalmining industry) and Lee Hall (a personal overview of the industry) and an excerpt from the Durham concerts’ programme notes.