Film Review: The Miners' Hymns

Found-footage work by filmmaker Bill Morrison matches archival scenes of miners in North England to a new musical score.

Originally shown in a live performance at the Durham Cathedral in 2010, The Miners' Hymns uses new and archival footage to give a history of the coal industry in North England. Tied to a somber score by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, the film is a melancholy elegy to a way of life that no longer exists.

The Miners' Hymns opens with helicopter footage of the contemporary landscapes around Durham. Titles point out the sites of former coal mines, now transformed into shopping malls and football stadiums.

Morrison then dissolves to archival black-and-white footage of miners assembling for what used to be called "Big Meetings," conventions marked by speeches and parades. Spanning the decades, the footage varies in quality, from pristine 35mm cinematography to what looks like home movies transferred poorly to video.

A second chapter hones in specifically on work in the mines. Again Morrison combines professionally lit and staged footage with rougher, grainier material. Tied to a score that uses moody organ, a muted choir, and somber horns, the film summons up contradictory emotions. As depicted by the anonymous cameramen, the workers perform valiantly in a harsh environment. But it doesn't matter how hard they work, as they are doomed to be replaced by machines.

A third chapter focuses on the margins of the industry. Individuals glean pieces of coal from the surrounding beaches; generations of children play on massive piles of tailings; massive structures haunt the skyline. Morrison builds slowly but inexorably to footage of the strikes in the 1980s that crippled the industry. The film ends with a succession of union parades, workers holding banners aloft as they march into Durham Cathedral.

Morrison, a master at selecting and editing together disparate footage, manages to give the material here a narrative its original makers may not have intended. In Morrison's hands, the coal workers are doomed to failure, first by mechanization, then by an economic system that found a way to outsource energy needs to the North Sea oil fields.

The Miners' Hymns
doesn't try to examine the political decisions that helped end the coal industry in North England; on the other hand, few in present-day Durham would want to return to the soot and grime that blanketed the city in earlier years.

Three additional shorts accompany The Miners' Hymns. Outerborough uses 68mm footage from an 1899 Biograph film shot on the Brooklyn Bridge in an experimental split-screen process. The Film of Her is a collage documentary about the paper print collection of films at the Library of Congress. Release reexamines 1930 footage of crowds awaiting Al Capone's release from Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary.