Appellate Judge James A. Stewart takes in the latest underground sound.
"The film is far from silent…"
The Miners' Hymns opens on a rocky shoreline, green and yellow fields serving as a backdrop. The classical-tinged music of Jóhann Jóhannsson, performed by an orchestra and aided by electronics, is heard. Soon we see the sites of the former Ryhope and Silksworth collieries, their closing dates (1966 and 1971) seen in the legends on the screen.
What? An aerial view relaxation travelogue of fading industry and unemployment? Not quite. The music—which the credits say was composed for 2010's BRASS Durham International Festival—turns out to be more ominous and unsettling than the sometimes campy strains of a travelogue score. The graceful British landscape gives way to black-and-white footage that shows us what the mining era in these coastal towns was like.
Some of it is political—there's film of rallies from the Durham Miners Association and clashes with police—but it's hard to tell what's going on there, since there's no dialogue or narration. More moving is the footage of the miners actually at work, their hammers eating into the coal walls, and the rhythmic machinery that backs up their work. The film ends, in keeping with its theme, with a church procession.
Many of the images Bill Morrison selects for his film show the miners (or the police) as a huge teeming force, illustrating the power and importance of the group, the miners' unions in this case. Thus, it's not a film they'll be showing at the stock exchanges, even if you don't hear the arguments and rhetoric.
Viewers who find themselves fascinated by the power of Bill Morrison's blend of music and vintage footage can also see three short films of his, included as bonus features. The best is "The Story of Her," which mixes performance and some very old clips to tell the story of the rescue of paper film reels at the Library of Congress. "Outerborough" uses some 1899 footage of a train crossing the Brooklyn Bridge and "Release" shows Al Capone leaving Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia; in both cases, repetition of film loops is used for artistic effect.
If film history—and the history it shows—is of interest to you, you'll probably want to seek out this DVD. All of the films are worth a look, but The Miners' Hymns reminds us of the importance of humanity and the tragedy of industrial decline, and they do it in a way that's instantly understandable to anyone.
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