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Bill Morrison’s THE MINERS’ HYMNS revisits a Northeast England mining community

THE MINERS’ HYMNS (Bill Morrison, 2011)
Film Forum
209 West Houston St.
February 8-14

Avant-garde filmmaker Bill Morrison (Decasia) collaborated with Icelandic musician and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson in the elegiac The Miners’ Hymn, a tribute to the now-gone collieries, or coal mines, of Northeast England. The fifty-two-minute documentary opens with new aerial shots of the locations where the Durham coal mines were, since replaced by luxury housing and megastores. The film shows the birth and death dates of several collieries going back to the nineteenth century, then seamlessly blends into archival black-and-white footage of the miners at work underground, the community coming together for a local fair, and a union rally during a strike that includes a confrontation with the police. There is no text and no narration in The Miners’ Hymn; instead, Morrison’s savvy editing of the found footage, consisting of both moving pictures and still photographs primarily acquired through the British Film Institute and the BBC, brings the old-fashioned town and its old-fashioned ways to vibrant life even though they roll across the screen in slow motion. Jóhannsson’s score punctuates the proceedings with an occasional brassy flare when not sounding more funereal. Despite the lack of text and narration, Morrison’s point of view is clear and all too obvious, paying homage to something that has been lost, and he is never quite able to make an emotional or personal connection with the viewer. However, The Miners’ Hymns contains remarkable footage that still manages to tell an important story, even if it is one-sided and lacking at least a little more historical context. The Miners’ Hymns is playing February 8-14 at Film Forum, along with Morrison’s short films Release (2010), featuring footage of Al Capone’s release from prison, Outerborough (2005), which looks at the Brooklyn Bridge, and The Film of Her (1996), a documentary about a Library of Congress copyright office employee who finds a vault full of old paper movies. Morrison will be at Film Forum for the 8:00 show on February 8, which will also feature live violin by Todd Reynolds.

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