Guest Blogger – Claire Lamond
The start of the 4th Annual Show Me Justice Film Festival is only a few days away! We continue our guest blogger series with another featured filmmaker, Claire Lamond, whose animated film Seams and Embers centers on Young Jim, as he follows his coal-mining forefathers into a difficult life working underground.
In 1984 many Scots, my family included, warmed their living room with a coal fire. We had played on coal bings collecting wee beasties to show in our ‘zoo’ to the rest of the street. You couldn’t travel far in central Scotland before you passed through whole communities whose history, work and culture were all bound into the coal industry.
Then Margaret Thatcher got into power.
The miners across Britain had fought hard for rights, pay and conditions through a very active trade union. Thatcher wanted to break down the power of the left. ‘There is no such thing as community’ she famously announced. Some pits had become uneconomical but most agree that the industry itself was still very viable in some form. However, as one of the strongest and most vocal trade unions, the miners were the ones Thatcher decided to take down to set an example to us all. For a year long strike the state hammered the workers. It’s been revealed more recently how close to defeat Thatcher felt she came but in the end the union was broken, communities destroyed from the inside as pits closed and some desperate families took the enticement of money to go back to work. But the mines had sat empty, many of them couldn’t run again and before long all the deep mines were closed in Scotland. There are still thousands of tons of coal under our ground but it would be too costly to start the industry up again. Obviously we are, quite rightly, moving towards greener energy sources but we are also still importing coal. The devastation to central Scotland, Wales and Northern England with the closure of the pits, and the way it happened, is still felt really keenly.
This was the backdrop to the beginning of my political awakening as an early teenager. What a joy, then, to become the artist in residence at National Mining Museum, Scotland for 6 months. The museum used to be Lady Victoria Colliery and the guides around the place are all ex-miners full of fantastic, funny, warm, heartbreaking and tough tales of their time in the industry. I had a, rare, free reign to make a film about anything that inspired me there. They have a massive library, lots of equipment and facts flying around but it was these guys’ tales that grabbed me. When I spoke to them, two things repeatedly emerged: memories of their first time going underground as boys and memories of the pit closures. There was my beginning and end of the film. I interviewed a few folk and cut almost 4 hours of recording into the final 6 minute film. Because the strike and the pit closures are still a painful subject for folk I was clear that I would put my own politics aside and try to ‘report’ things as they were told to me. All editing is subjective, inherently, and what I have made falls somewhere between drama and documentary so I make no apologies for that but I had to be aware of the community I was making it in and the fact that it was to be part of a museum exhibition. It’s a tough one though I think for film makers who feel strongly political about something about how best to convey ideas. For me the idea of focussing in on one small story to symbolise something wider feels like my way into that.
Scottish folk music is rich in songs about workers’ lives including coal miners. These went through my head continually as I entered my dark studio and the world of tiny miners. It was an obvious choice to use one of them as the title and closing sequence.
Despite the devastating effect of the pit closures, it’s not a straight forward thing, the end of the coal industry. People were risking their lives right up till the end despite increased safety measures. I wanted to include this and did it through the canary in the film. Canaries were traditionally taken underground to act as a crude form of gas detection. If the bird stopped singing the men got out. Many families from mining heritage still keep canaries in cages in their homes. In the film, while the industry is working the bird is in a cage. There is a release at the end – the bird flies free.
Thatcher broke the left. The opposition party, traditionally socialist, moved centre and abandoned the word socialism. The challenge is now is to reunite. Disparate groups, who would have shunned each other in the more openlyleft-wing past, are joining together in a National Collective with the aim of protecting each other and what is still good in our society: our health service, our state education, our welfare system. Our industry is all but gone and many things have been privatised now but socialism, especially in Scotland where the prospect of becoming an independent country is within our grasp, is ,thankfully, back in everyday language.