Saturday, 4 October 2014

The diggers: "Still the Enemy Within"

There will be filmier films released between now and Christmas than Owen Gower's Still the Enemy Within, but few will be quite this socially important, impassioned and timely - especially now, with Pride and its slightly pantomimish vision of the miners' strike on wide release. Gower's documentary restores the dust, tears and regrets Pride omits from its cheery picture of 1984, and from these constructs the very opposite of a creation myth: what we get is a chronicle of the dismantling of British industry, that state-assisted decline in blue-collar productivity that helped to deposit us in the hole we find ourselves in today. Its enormous rhetorical strength lies in its interviews with erstwhile miners, many veterans of the preceding decade's industrial action, who recount - in colourful, colloquial language that can only be a boon for the filmmaker (and listener) - the circumstances whereby the Thatcher government effectively declared war on the trade union movement and thus the working-class communities they represented. 

What Gower captures through them, and his expertly assembled archive footage, is a sense of the seething aggro of this moment, a consequence of a nation wrestling with itself - or, to be more specific, of Westminster wrestling with the regions. (Told you it was timely.) Here is a clip of Ian MacGregor, treacherous head of the National Coal Board, being wrestled to the ground while visiting one pit threatened with closure; here are tetchy coppers pulling over minibuses full of strikers, or putting their batons through car windscreens, or marching through the streets on horseback, like an occupying force. All of this is dramatic indeed, while also making the police in Pride seem an even sketchier afterthought: that film either didn't have the budget to stage the pitched battles - like Orgreave - documented here, or simply wasn't interested in describing that side of the conflict.

As the second half of Gower's film makes clear, this was a war of attrition - and you could argue it's here that Pride comes in: late in the day, long after the key battles had been lost. There's nevertheless a very moving interview with Mike Jackson - founder member of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, played in Pride by Joe Gilgun - who reveals his group were applauded from the first moment they set foot in the valleys. Elsewhere, the imbalance of power in this struggle is starkly illustrated: Gower doesn't have to do much to make devastating the irony of those miners who, unable to work and deprived of state benefits, went into the winter of '84 with no coal to heat their homes. Interviews with the women who established soup kitchens give a sense of how everyone within these communities suddenly had a role to play, and you can certainly take heart from this solidarity: indeed, the film's concluding montage is clearly intended to get people back out on the streets as another wave of Tory cuts takes hold.

As a documentary, however, Still the Enemy Within doesn't feel obliged to deliver the happy ending Pride had to, and it allows time for the full extent and repercussions of the miners' defeat to register. In their determination to take out the unions - and their power to negotiate better wages and living conditions - the Thatcher government took out an entire industry; accordingly, the last quarter of Gower's film is an impossibly sad, slow winding down. "What are you going to do now?," asks a reporter of one miner leaving his workplace in 1992. "Struggle, like everyone else," is the response. As the camera roams the now overgrown site of what was once Frickley Colliery, I was reminded of The Miners' Hymns, Bill Morrison's found-footage eulogy for all those pits since turned into call centres and Asda car parks - but the sequence also has some of the eerie power of Claude Lanzmann's tours of concentration-camp locations: there, as here, what the void we're confronted with represents is how a people, a community, an entire way of life was wiped out. Perhaps we can never get that back - but Gower's film is as good a call to arms as any documentary released this year.

Still the Enemy Within is now playing in selected cinemas.

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