Aerial footage as a documentary tool can be intensely problematic, particularly when used as a film’s chief visual component. As employed in a project like Home, Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s recent country-hopping tour-of-the-planet doc, it tends to impose a sameness on all the imagery it captures, a bland prettiness that prevents any differentiation between landscapes. Given the points which that NatGeo-style movie aims to raise about mankind’s abuse of the planet, the film’s assigning of the same visual value to shots of both unspoiled and polluted nature serves chiefly to undermine the project’s central thesis.
But as merely one method of conveying visual information, overhead landscape footage is certainly not without its uses. In The Miners’ Hymns, director Bill Morrison uses aerial views sparingly: Overhead shots of the now idle Durham coalfields in northeast England, divided into two discrete chunks, take up no more than 15 of the film’s 52 minutes. More importantly, Morrison uses this footage not merely to contextualize the rest of the film, which consists entirely of a seamless assemblage of archival material, but to set the two modes of discourse in a useful dialectical relationship.
A study of the this former mining region in both its de-industralized present and its past state as an active coalfield, The Miners’ Hymns arranges its two parts as a set of binary oppositions. Opening with fast-moving contemporary aerial footage of the Durham coastline, its empty fields, and its newly built stores and luxury housing, the film uses pop-up titles to inform us where several of the regions’ now defunct mines were located, as well as the dates of their activity. Transitioning into the archival footage with an artful dissolve, Morrison swaps the earlier material’s terms of present/color/aerial/fast with past/black-and-white/ground-level/slow. As he arranges the footage into a crisply legible account of union rallies, intimate trips into the hellish mine conditions, and violent encounters between strikers and policemen, Morrison subjects the entirety of the material to a process of slow-motion, further distancing the relatively stable past from the rapid developments that characterize the present.
In contrast to the vast, impersonal sweep of the contemporary footage, the archival material, some of which dates back over 100 years, is eerily intimate. The slow motion calls attention to faces and details, a young worker at a rally turning slowly to shoot a questioning glance at the camera or a single balloon held by another worker at a different gathering rising above the massed heads. But what’s most striking are the shots inside the mine, as the unprecedented access granted the original cameramen allows us to ride with the miners down the tiny shaft elevator and to move through the nauseatingly claustrophobic tunnels.
But at the same time, the slow motion has the effect of distancing us from the footage, emphasizing the graininess of the material—as in Decasia, his classic visual study of nitrate decay, Morrison is always fascinated by the physical nature of film—and making it seem like something removed from any contemporary conception of time which, given how the region has become utterly transformed in the past 25 years, makes more than a little sense. This feeling of obsolescence is further emphasized in a late sequence which follows what seems to be turn-of-the-19th-century workers exiting the factory after their shift, footage which can’t help but bring to mind the Lumière brothers’ roughly contemporaneous 1895 short, Workers Leaving the Factory, one of the foundational texts of another outmoded industrial project: film.
The Miners’ Hymns is conceived as a collaborative project between Morrison and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose brass-heavy, electronic score is meant to recall the music of the colliery brass bands that are occasionally glimpsed in some of the film’s archival footage. Jóhannsson’s work, with its rousing crescendos, frequently lends a heroic air to the material, particularly during footage of the miners at work hacking out coal nuggets with their pickaxes or during a union procession that wends into a local cathedral, an impression aided by the gravitas-accentuating use of slow motion. But sometimes the composer’s cues can be too literal, as when he pounds out a series of ominous notes as the workers descend the shaft. Considering that the project itself skews a bit toward the literal (especially compared with the open-ended mysteries of Decasia), the score doesn’t always do Morrison any favors.