It’s fairly incredible what you can do with a mammoth amount of archival footage and an eye for recognizable, classically humanist themes. Delving into several archives, including the British Film Institute’s impressive collection, Bill Morrison has transformed some incredibly well-preserved black-and-white cinematography of 20th-century England into an impressive, sustained 52-minute exploration of a brutal bygone way of life. With no audio track of its own, the film utilizes a hypnotic, repetitive, neo-classical score by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, which, for the most part, heightens the director’s use of motion to impart meaning. The Miners’ Hymns presents a richly sensual experience, a succession of visually striking glimpses of the British coal-mining industry from the early part of the 20th century up through its collapse during Thatcher’s reign.
The Miners’ Hymns begins with an unassuming and increasingly ominous modern flyover of County Durham in the Northeast of England. It is a region whose rich coal-mining tradition largely died out during the 1980s and now primarily subsists through tourism and the service sector. Jóhannsson’s score adds successively more brooding layers to a gorgeous, long, and slowed-down shot of the region and the beautiful cliffs of its shoreline, periodically pointing out strip malls and parking structures that were formerly the sites of various collieries. The pacing of the sequence is deliberately slow, acting as a kind of invitation to encounter the past in a meaningfully decelerated frame of mind.
Amid the beautiful chaotic movement of windswept grasses near the North Sea coast, Morrison transports the viewer back to the early part of the 20th century, splicing together black-and-white footage of an annual Durham-area miners’ festival. The shots he chooses are interesting because they showcase a pioneering sense of composition on the part of their anonymous cinematographer, and the contrast between the lights and shadows of the frames are visually appealing in and of themselves. However, what struck me as particularly stunning about these early sequences that Morrison hand-picked was the impeccable way in which they display the emotion of the members of the crowd. In most of these shots, there’s at least one uneasy stone-faced miner of harried mother staring directly at the camera, usually mustering a half-smile while the lines in their faces belie a life of physical trauma and financial unease. From here, we’re taken beneath the surface of the earth, and Morrsion embarks upon an intricately contrived sequence of shots that sustain a compelling sense of motion. Although some might complain that there is no dialogue, no narration, no title cards, it is precisely because of this and Jóhannsson’s subdued score that the viewer’s enjoyment of what’s taking place on the screen can be so heightened.
The significance of Morrison’s visual language and what it says to a populace that very well may be sitting on the same brink of redundancy that all of those proud, worried miners once did won’t be lost on those willing to pay attention for the relatively short amount of time it takes for him to play out his meditation on a vanished way of life. Morrison, himself one of the most well-regarded miners of historical found-footage, has created something truly remarkable with his latest feature, and those with the desire to be shown something interesting without having their hands held or told which scenes are more important will come away from the experience with a renewed appreciation for cinema as an art form, a means of historical preservation, and a continued source of wonder.