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Meet the 2011 Tribeca Filmmakers | “The Miners’ Hymns” Director Bill Morrison

Meet the 2011 Tribeca Filmmakers | "The Miners' Hymns" Director Bill Morrison

Filmmaker Bill Morrison is one of the leading international artists working within the genre of found footage filmmaking. In his previous work, like “The Highwater Trilogy” (TFF ’06) and Release (TFF ’10), he often uses shots replete with signs of chemical deterioration and decay. He then refashions these images via digital processing techniques into meditations on the fragility of human existence. In “The Miners’ Hymns,” Morrison shifts his emphasis from decaying footage to stunning black-and-white images that have been preserved in the British National Film Archives. From this raw material, Morrison artfully constructs a story of British coal miners at work below the surface of the earth, together with their vibrant, close-knit community above ground. Morrison intercuts this material with color footage that he himself filmed. These contemporary aerial landscapes of nondescript shopping malls and empty fields of green cover over the now-abandoned collieries situated in Northeast England. [Synopses courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival]

“The Miners’ Hymns”
Director: Bill Morrison
Screenwriter: Bill Morrison, Jóhann Jóhannsson, David Metcalfe
Producer: Forma

Responses courtesy of “The Miners’ Hymns” director Bill Morrison.

“Films as a barrage of separate paintings”….

I studied as a painter at Cooper Union. I took some film classes from the great experimental animator, Robert Breer, who was also a sculptor and a painter. I came to see films as a barrage of separate paintings, and became interested in films where each frame distinguished itself from the next. When I started matching music to moving images I felt there was a real emotional power there that I found hard to match with paint.

How it all came about…

“The Miners’ Hymns” began as a commission from Forma, the producer of the film. Because of my past work creating films from archival footage edited to music (e.g “Decasia”), I was approached by David Metcalfe to develop a film with Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson about coal mining in the Northeast of England. What followed was a year of research about the subject, the region, its history. We visited regional film archives and spoke with union organizers. We shot a few of the former mine sites from the air. Drawing on the tradition of colliery brass bands, Jóhann composed a score for brass instruments with pipe organ. The project premiered as a live performance at the Durham Cathedral in July 2010. In September 2010 the soundtrack was recorded in the same cathedral, and we re-edited the film to match the recording. We mastered the finished film with 5.1 audio in January 2011. The finished film will have its world premiere screening at Tribeca April 22. The soundtrack will be released on CD by FatCat Record on May 23. And the BFI will release the DVD on June 20, 2011.

History through film…

My idea coming into the project was to use the footage of miners from the archives to tell a social history of the region. I saw an analogy between the coal that had been left in the seams, and the films about miners and mining that were stored in the archives. A national heritage was lying underground. As I watched reel after reel of industrials produced by the National Coal Board and independent films about miners, I saw patterns developing in the imagery. Entire scenes were repeated decade after decade – political rallies, going to work, in the mine, going home, playing, organizing, fighting, and ultimately celebrating at the Big Meeting in Durham. They were all scenes which involved groups of people, generation after generation, whose lives were very much intertwined. To give these scenes a contemporary context, we shot a number of the sites of closed pits from a helicopter, which revealed of landscape of community revolving around consumer commerce: shopping malls, football stadiums, and a man-made ski jump.

Opposing views…

The miners’ strike of 1984 was a momentous event in the UK’s history, and one that had to be addressed in any treatment of the subject. And it is still a very volatile subject about which there remains a lot of animosity. Former miners in the region still hold that Margaret Thatcher’s sole motivation in ordering pit closures was to force a confrontation with, and to ultimately break, the powerful National Union of Mineworkers. Yet professionals I met from London maintained that it was a dead industry that’s time had come, and, after all, it was a miserable life for the worker. The NUM, under Arthur Scargill, seemed to be making a last stand for Socialism in a developed Western country. While Thatcher ushered in the new global free market economy that defined much of the wealth accrued in the ensuing 24 years, as well, perhaps, as the lack of government oversight that led to the collapse of the market in the past three years. Today imported coal makes up 10% of the total energy supply in the UK. If this resource is no longer provided by the local communities, what role do these communities have in their country? This seems to be the most challenging question posed by the project. Addressing the strike in a way that served the project, and didn’t simply sensationalize the festering emotions around it, was the biggest challenge to me in developing it.

Highlights from the shoot…

I spent a day with Dave Douglass, a union organizer under Scargill, who very generously shared anecdotes, videos, and strike movement plans drawn up on bar napkins. He was a fascinating guy to talk to, and still living with the ghosts of the Strike to this day.

I asked our helicopter pilot for the aerial shoot to fly around Durham Cathedral, but he said that he couldn’t do it because it was within five miles of a prison, and there was a no-fly zone. Evidently he personally had played a role in this law being enacted: years earlier he had been skyjacked and forced at gunpoint into landing his helicopter in the middle of a prison yard, where four inmates climbed onboard, and he flew off.

In the works…

My next project is with the guitarist Bill Frisell, and deals with the Mississippi RIver Flood of 1927 and the Great Migration of rural southern African Americans to the northern US cities, where the Delta Blues became Rock and Roll. Like “The Miners’ Hymns”, it is a wordless evening-length project, using primarily archival images and music. It is scheduled to be premiere as a live performance with the film on September 10, 2011, at the Krannert Center at the University of Illinois. It will come to New York’s Zankel Hall on November 4, 2011.

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