Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Big Meeting – telling some of the stories of the annual Durham Miners’ Gala (from 6 September)

Every year on the second Saturday in July, thousands of activists converge in the north east of England for the Durham Miners’ Gala. At the peak of coal industry there were over 100 pits in Country Durham; today none are still in operation.

A new documentary from Shut Out the Light Films about the gala is being screened in some English and Scottish cinemas from Friday 6 September, marking the 150th anniversary of the gala. The Big Meeting provides an immersive insight into the 2018 event (which was blessed with glorious sunshine), following various participants across the day and sewing their individual dramas into a colourful patchwork quilt.

Coming from Northern Ireland, I can’t help but compare the gala with a Twelfth of July Orange parade. People marching behind an ornate banner accompanied by a band and congregating in a field for speeches and a grockle around some stalls seems terribly familiar!

The sequence on miners’ art was one of the most distinctive and satisfying in the film, while the scenes inside Durham Cathedral were spine-tingling as Highland Cathedral echoed around the stone walls.

The event clearly means different things to different people. Some are commemorating family connections with coal-mining; some are upholding the work of trade unions; some are protesting for socialist causes; some see it as a way of celebrating working class Britain; some very definitely see it as a way of marking their support for the Labour Party, and, in particular, Jeremy Corbyn’s style of politics (he pops up in person at the 38 minute mark).

Talking heads voice their perspectives over a mix of archive and contemporary footage. Split screen is used to effectively convey the size and breadth of the occasion. While I’d expect the pace to vary across the 90-minute documentary, there are a lot of wistful shots that probably evoke strong emotion in participants but merely slow down the telling of the gala’s story to newbies.

The final line of the film’s narration observes: “You realise it’s a little more than you expect”. But as an outside watching the film and finding out about the gala for the first time, I overwhelmed by the melange of ideas being spread and the varying rationale for involvement. People are coming together, but not really for one collective purpose that they’d agree on.

The documentary doesn’t address this scope creep amongst participants. Instead it notes the Labour grandees with drinks and cigars up on the balcony of the Country Hotel without commenting that these elite leaders may be perceived to be 15 feet above contradiction and certainly not ‘down with the people’ as they watch from this elevated position above the working class beginnings of the gala.

As a film that documents that colour, vibrancy and history of the Durham Miner’s Gala, The Big Meeting delivers a balance of people, stories and perspectives. However, director Daniel Draper very much paints an insider’s view of the gala, an enthusiastic and unchallenging celebration of the event. His target audience seems to be the easy pickings of existing socialist activists rather than selling the event to a wider and perhaps more sceptical audience who wonder how this annual rage against capitalism by the energy centres of the 19th century apply in the 21st.

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