Bill Morrison, The Miners’ Hymns, 2011, stills from a black-and-white and color film, 52 minutes.


BILL MORRISON’S The Miners’ Hymns (2011) is a remembrance of northeast England’s lifeworld of coal and an ode to the solidarities born of the struggle to survive it, before the industry was union-gutted and privatized unto extinction in the 1990s. Like Morrison’s Decasia (2002)—whose deliquescing cast included men fleeing a mining disaster only to encounter death by nitrate film stock—it is a necromantic collage, but it extends a homecoming to the past more than a final farewell. Black-and-white clips culled from archival footage since 1900 underscore strain and occlusion in the dug-out dark—miners prowling on all fours to reach farther seams, coal in chiaroscuro out-glistening faces. Slowed for a searching, heedful gaze, the frame lingers before scenes of telling simplicity, like a clothesline against tessellating rowhouses, its billowing whites dignifying conjoined work-cycles. It’s astonishing how often we see the open sea, never so distant from the airless pits; kids bound toward it after sliding down slag hills while their elders harvest washed-up seacoal there.

A present-day flyover of Durham’s reclad villages notes the supermarket parking lot that was Ryhope’s colliery and the dry ski slopes now upholstering Silkworth’s. But aerial survey promptly turns to historical X-ray as the helicopter descends to earth, gusting a grassy field until it dissolves into a flat-capped crowd from another time, gathered for the annual Durham Miners’ Gala. When men next convene in a field it is for civil war: Images from the Battle of Orgreave during the 1984–85 miners’ strike surge like the political unconscious of The Iron Lady (2011), out for a reckoning. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s enveloping, electronically finessed score of brasses and organ, drawing on the region’s colliery brass-band tradition, is paced with suspense, and The Miners’ Hymns concludes in the very Durham Cathedral where it premiered, ushering film-memory into lived experience.

Chinnie Ding

The Miners’ Hymns has its theatrical premiere February 8–14 at Film Forum in New York.