Coal Face (1935)

This short but potent film is an official classic of the British documentary movement, and an ‘oratorio of coal mining’.

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Just 12 minutes long, the much-celebrated pit documentary Coal Face is so richly powerful that, like a deep coal-rich mine, it can be visited again and again without ever surrendering all its treasures. It’s a fine example of a film ‘put together in the cutting room’ from stock material taken by several different people: creative editing weaves these shots into a total design much more than the sum of its parts.

It’s the sound added to these silent images that makes the film truly special. With its drummed rhythms, discordant piano notes, individual and massed voices, Welsh choirs and more, it’s no wonder that the film has been described as ‘an oratorio of coal mining’. Like a musical piece, it is divided into distinct ‘movements’ each one (particularly a sequence taking us ‘underground’ as if on a miner’s shift) an enthralling artistic experience.

What Coal Face is saying, though, is a little harder to be sure of. It encourages viewers to think about the human price of their own coal and to revere the men who mine it, but not to see them as symbols more than as individuals. It was made by mainly middle-class filmmakers from the ‘documentary movement’, who were frequently accused of making romantic art out of working-class subjects and falling short of true political protest.

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