Experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison will probably always be best known for 2002’s “Decasia,” his 67-minute meditation on the terrifying beauty of decomposing film prints. But Morrison has made many other films that take advantage of movie archives’ mysterious power to conjure up the past in ways both vividly real and distorted. Morrison’s 2011 piece “The Miners’ Hymns” is being shown with a trio of those earlier works: 2010’s “Release,” which mirrors a panoramic shot of Al Capone being let out of prison such that the assembled crowd collapses into itself; 2005’s similar “Outerborough,” which runs two old POV shots of a tram crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, side by side, at varying speeds; and 1996’s remarkable “The Film Of Her,” which combines an anecdote about a Library Of Congress flunky who saved thousands of paper prints from being destroyed with samples from some of those prints, as well as documentary footage of wood being turned into celluloid. “The Film Of Her” makes explicit what a lot of Morrison’s other films imply: When we neglect our cinematic past, we lose an essential part of ourselves and our history.
These three films, though, are wisps compared to the strong gust that is “The Miners’ Hymns,” which Morrison has referred to as his first real documentary, with all its impressions combining to form something like a narrative. Relying primarily on slowed-down clips from vintage National Coal Board promotional films and British TV news footage of ’80s miners’ strikes—all contextualized by color flyover shots of where the Durham collieries used to be—Morrison sketches a portrait of a vanished way of life for one Northeast England community, along with an explanation of sorts for why it disappeared. “The Miners’ Hymns” isn’t journalism. Aside from a few onscreen titles during the modern-day sequences, there’s nothing that openly says, “Here’s what this image is, and here’s what it means.” Instead, in keeping with Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score—alternately ominous, triumphant, and elegiac—“The Miners’ Hymns” plays on the broader emotions of the subject. The film is all about the mysterious world down below, how camaraderie turned to conflict, and the nagging feeling of loss.