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The Miners' Hymns - Movie Review - 2010

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The Miners' Hymns - Movie Review - 2010

Still from 'The Miners' Hymns'

Icarus Films

The Art of Mining

New York filmmaker Bill Morrison has mined the archives of the British Film Institute for stored original footage about the coal mining industry in the United Kingdom.

As a filmmaker, Morrison's signature is the use of archival footage to create impressionistic, rather poetic portraits of bygone eras in different places and eras. In The Miners' Hymns, the place is County Durham in North East England, and the time frame is roughly from the middle of the 19th century to the 1990s, when operations ceased at the area's collieries, and coal miners turned in their drills, pickaxes and shovels for jobs in service industries.

Using an extraordinary wealth of black and white archival footage -- some of which seems almost as gritty as the subject it covers -- Morrison's compilation takes us into the County Durham mines of yore -- to surface pits and underground -- following coal-covered laborers as they toil in the tunnels they've dug, extracting anthracite from the earth and delivering it for consumption.

The Quality of Life

The film shows us not only how the miners worked, but also how they lived, and how they protested egregious work conditions, and how they celebrated -- most notably at the Miners' Gala, a fancy dress bash held annually at Durham Cathedral.

Although coal mining is a notoriously dirty business, one in which laborers suffered ghastly work conditions, Morrison makes no political or social comments in the film. The only outright reference to hardship occurs through coverage of the miners' strike during the 1980s.

Impressions and Information

There is, in fact, no voice over narration, and the only hard information Morrison presents during the film is in the form of titles that identify the specific locations where the footage was shot.

Morrison doesn't use his found footage in strict chronological order, but mixes older and more recent sequences so that the film's overall arc has a timeless quality.

The Miners' Hymns is a collage of images that creates an impressionistic and rather poetic ideal of the history of coal mining. Instead of presenting statistics in voice over or graphics, the filmmakers create a depth of understanding by using an emotional and haunting original score, the work of Icelandic composer and co-director Johann Johannsson, whose mournful opus gives the film an elegiac note.

A Modern Twist

For the film's opening and closing, Morrison bookends the archival footage with beautifully shot scenic aerial shots of contemporary County Durham, where the former collieries that scarred the landscape are now covered over with lush greenery. The aerial photography sets the found footage into its modern context, and also suggests that earth heals itself beautifully -- if given the chance.

Morrison Is A Master

As a filmmaker, Morrison's approach to documentary composition is unique. The way in which he uses found archival footage is actually revelatory. As a result of Morrison's construction, The Miners' Hymns and his other films are charged with a very special dream like quality that is quite mesmerizing. Images and moments of juxtaposition stick with you long after you've seen the film.

The Miners' Hymns and Morrison's other films are best seen in theaters with large screens and superb sound systems. Unfortunately, The Miners' Hymns and the other films are rarely screened in theaters, but that's where you should see them, if you can -- even if it takes some effort to do so.

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Film Details:

  • Title: The Miners' Hymns - 2010
  • Directors: Bill Morrison and Johann Johannsson
  • Release Date: Theatrical, February 8, 2012 (New York, limited)
  • Running Time: 52 mins.
  • MPAA Rating: Not Rated
  • Parental Advisory: Content advisory for parents
  • Location: Various communities in County Durham, North East England.
  • Language: English
  • Production Country: USA, United Kingdom
  • Production Company: Hypnotic Pictures
  • Theatrical Distribution Company: Icarus Films
  • Official Website
  • Official Trailer

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