Nobody doubts that coal mining in the 20th century was a hard, grimy trade to ply, but The Miners' Hymns adds noble to the list of words appropriate for describing this type of labor. The film is the latest release from Bill Morrison, best known for Decasia and a series of short works (Light is Calling among the best of them) based in archival footage so ravaged physically by the hands of time that the deterioration produces unexpected and painterly qualities. This time around, Morrison sets aside his usual fascination with decaying source materials, a choice that is surprising at first, and yet, the results are no less hypnotic to behold.
The film focuses on the coal mining industry of Durham, England, allowing us to gaze upon the coal miners as they drink, work, and fight in solidarity. Morrison organizes the footage into discrete sections that move through the day and/or lifespan of the industry, carefully integrating the region as a player in his narrative. For instance, after watching the miners toil underground for a long stretch, we see as an immense amount of coal is piled high in an above ground pit. Morrison soon cuts to a group of children playing in these artificial hills of black rock. Union demonstrations, clashes with authorities, and a ceremonial march through the backdrop of Durham play largely into the final third of The Miners' Hymns.
All of this occurs without narration; as per usual, the filmmaker resists being tied to a strictly literal retelling of the history as it flits across the screen. Instead, the rough proximity of these events form their own hazy and vaguely familiar narrative, decipherable while still oblique enough to gather up mystery. The original score by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson intertwines seamlessly with the visual motifs that Morrison has stitched together here, heightening the imagery and rhythm of the edits into something greater than the sum of their parts. The lasting impression of this audio/visual collaboration is that these miners as a combined force were superhuman in their efforts. Even if the negative health effects experienced by that population can't be expunged from memory while viewing it, The Miners' Hymns offers a heroic portrait of these men who toiled beneath the earth's surface.
The Miners' Hymns screens at the NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium (in the Portland Art Museum) as a part of the Reel Music Festival series on Monday, October 15th at 7pm. More info available here.
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