Above Us The Earth (1977)
The pit closures of the 1970s and 1980s, which so blighted convivial community life in the south Wales valleys, elicited little response from mainstream filmmakers. One honourable exception to the prevailing silence in British cinema was Above Us The Earth, premiered and distributed by London's Other Cinema, and directed by independent filmmaker Karl Francis from Bedwas, Gwent.
His film, effectively a drama-doc, homed in on the 1975 closure of the Ogilvie Colliery in the Rhymney Valley, a few miles from Francis' family home (his mother Gwen plays a role as wife of the central character).
Francis is often fiercely partisan with his films but here he treats (or rather indicts) certain central players in the drama with admirable evenhandedness. The National Union of Mineworkers' leaders are seen as vacillating and compromised, the local leadership is upbraided by its members for its lack of guidance and courage, and ordinary miners are seen squabbling among themselves about whether they should take compensation and agree to closure.
The film, by implication, suggests that the Government is presumptuous in pressing for the shutdown, when there are sufficient seam pickings still to be had, and even local Ebbw Vale MP Michael Foot does not escape implicit criticism, as he faces a vociferous miners' meeting. Hard working lodge secretary Evan Jones is the victim of a little predictable backbiting and perhaps, unreasonable expectations.
Similar arguments were to figure in screen debates throughout the 1980s, especially in the invaluable tapes of video groups such as Cardiff's Chapter Arts Centre, made with the local pitmen themselves. (Chapter's The Case for Coal and the two versions of Rumours at the Miners' Fortnight are particularly revealing).
Windsor Rees, the ailing old miner central to Above Us The Earth, is riddled with emphysema at the time of the closure and the film examines the impact of his family and friends as the film confronts the compensation and relocation question. We watch at close quarters Windsor's prolonged and sickening coughing bouts.
In one unforgettable scene his son (played by the writer Alan Osborne) confronts him in their home and berates him for not abandoning the pit long before. The old man, racked by illness, can only offer a one line explanation: "It's a way of life, mun".
"It's a way of death you mean," says the son, and the film examines with brutal honesty the dilemma of such mining communities, when continued work in the pits with attendant health risks are seen as the only job outlet and preferable to joblessness. The film doesn't let any negotiating parties off the hook as Francis looks at the issues, almost forensically, from diverse perspectives.
Windsor Rees was a pub landlord at the time of Above Us The Earth and had not been a miner for years, and Francis exercises licence in restaging scenes, notably when one miner, watching Joe Gormley in a TV interview, demonstrates a kind of worldweary but humorous cynicism. In fact the film had been suspended for some months while Francis scrambled for funds, and the TV interview had taken place the year before.
It's the issues which count for Francis, and the film's vibrancy and edge ensures its continuing appeal as a stirring document of its time.