Sheffield Doc/Fest 2012: ‘The Miners’ Hymns’ review


In Decasia (2002), experimental American filmmaker Bill Morrison explored the fragility of film by looking at decomposing celluloid. In The Miners’ Hymns (2010), the director does something very similar but on a grander scale. By slowing down archive footage of the mining communities in the North West of England, and pairing them neatly with a melancholic score from Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, Morrison throws some light on the fragility of history, and the importance of its industrial communities. The Miners’ Hymns opens with a helicopter shot over a particular part of Britain, captured on film here in its slightly grainy brightness and focusing in on a giant ASDA.

We find out that this was once the sight of the Ryhope Colliery, the central area of industry for the region for seventy years. The film continues in a similar vein until it reverts to old footage from the last one hundred years, sourced from National Coal Board promotional films and British television news footage of miner’s strikes. Some of the film’s footage is very beautiful, some very jarring. Morrison makes it quite clear how vital the coal mining industry was for certain areas of the North-West and follows its trajectory on film from early grainy shots of fairly hazardous-looking mines to miners strikes in 1984. Black humour – such an essential element of the British condition – could have brought this film out from the murky depths of chiaroscuro shots and its melancholy soundtrack.

This isn’t to say that The Miners’ Hymns isn’t creative or engaging. The collaboration between Jóhannsson and Morrison is an interesting one, partly because Jóhannsson wrote the music first, and Morrison edited the film footage around it. The final effect is a moody, darkly sinister orchestral piece, aided by the fact that it was recorded at Durham Cathedral. The film’s focus on the Durham Miners’ Gala – an annual meeting which occurred from the 19th century to the Thatcher era, and brought together mining communities and union activists – is an interesting focal point, as it focuses the link between the film’s images and its music. Jóhannsson has described the style of music as ‘happy’, and one can see what he means: the final crescendo into the track The Cause of Labour is the Hope of the World is as uplifting as you’re going to get within these 52 minutes of film.

Sophia Satchell Baeza