Stratum depicts social history. When was it taking place?
Jacob: The film combines present-day footage of derelict or repurposed coal mines with archive film from the 1920s, 1930s, 1970s and 1980s. These were periods of change and conflict, of strike action, repression and rupture in the social fabric. A key archive source we draw upon is Henri Storck and Joris Ivens’ film Misère au Borinage (Poverty in the Borinage), a socialist documentary made during the General Strike, in the depths of the 1930s “Great Depression”.
Nick: Today, with the mines consigned to history, former industrial sites have undergone different forms of transformation. In the UK, most pit headgears and mine buildings have been demolished and erased entirely from the landscape; whereas many sites across continental Europe have been re-purposed as museums, event spaces, art galleries, retail outlets, cinemas, public parks etc., and some have even been adapted to produce clean solar and geothermal energy.
Why did you want to focus on miners and coal?
Jacob: The film results from an exhibition commission from a museum in Barnsley, a former mining town in South Yorkshire, England. The town’s history and culture were shaped by the coal industry, which brought great wealth and prosperity to some. But this was prosperity born of exploitation, reliant upon the graft and struggle of the miners and their families, whose existence was one of perpetual precarity. Along with many other “pit towns”, Barnsley’s economy, identity and way of life were catastrophically affected in the 1980s by the sudden closure of coal mines and the shift to imported coal – a political and economic decision that was implemented by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government with a perverse ideological zeal. We also wanted to look at the idea of solidarity, both in political terms and in relation to comparative experience. To trace the lines of connection that can be drawn between the people, communities and landscapes of coal mining regions across Europe at a time when the UK faces a crisis of connection and national identity.
Nick: We used the European Route of Industrial Heritage map to select our filming locations, from South Yorkshire (UK), through Wallonia (Belgium) and into the Ruhr Valley (Germany), contrasting the historic “Borinage” film material with these contemporary European locations that have a shared industrial or social history. It was also of great interest for us to visit European countries that had put plans in place for a managed, gradual transition away from coal mining, with public investment and retraining schemes, in marked contrast to the UK government’s approach.
Jacob: Another area we focus upon is the unique landscape of spoil heaps – the manmade ridges formed by mining waste soil, which today have become a diverse habitat for particular flora and fauna species.
Do you see a similarity to modern society? What do you think of modern automation?
Nick: There are definitely striking parallels between the 1930s Great Depression and today, in the aftermath of the global financial crash of 2008. They were similar types of crises, caused by a grossly unbalanced, credit-boom economy, rigged for the benefit of wealthy individuals and corporations. Stratumcaptures the collective solidarity and resistance shown to capitalism’s systemic failure in the 1930s, with a worker-led demand for secure jobs, social welfare, housing, education and health services, and that’s a fight which continues today, as the majority feel the effects of austerity, falling living standards, increased debt, insecure work, decimated public services, widening inequality and growing poverty – and we see the dangerous rise of right-wing populism and Nationalism across the world.
Jacob: Automation has some persuasive benefits, but these are frequently deceptive or illusory, offering freedom and efficiency at the cost of a growing subservience to technology. Technology is not neutral and more often than not serves commercial interests. From a utopian vantage point, technological developments could be co-opted for the ends of genuine human liberty, whereby the transformative potential of automation is brought to bear as a tool to free society from wage slavery. But, don’t hold your breath…
Where did you get the video material from? And how did you compose the voice over?
Nick: As well as shooting our own material, the historic footage was drawn from national public-domain collections, as well as Barnsley Museums’ archive, which includes amateur footage of the region’s social and industrial history alongside public information films made by the National Coal Board and the GPO. It was extraordinary to see the working conditions captured on film, such as women at the pit tops sorting coal by hand and manually pushing coal wagons.
Jacob: The voice-over is made up of excerpts from Storck and Ivens’ Misère au Borinage. There is a profound urgency to that recording from the 1930s, with words that still resonate and are salient to the present crisis of capitalism.
Would you say that the short film format has given you any particular freedom?
Nick: The short film format certainly gives us the freedom to experiment with juxtaposing sound and image together, in an intuitive way, without having to take into account a longer narrative thread. Stratum is actually a companion work to a longer film, Strata, which we made as a 40-minute two-screen installation for our exhibition at Barnsley Museum.
Jacob: Whilst also combining original cinematography with archive film, Strata is driven by voices from the local community, who share collective experiences, memories of place, and their hopes for a fairer, more sustainable economy that benefits all.
Nick: So it was in the context of this longer, location-specific work that we made Stratum, with the freedom it gave us to make these wider, more internationalist connections.