Documenting the struggle

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Still the Enemy Within, the passionate, crowd-funded film about the 1984-85 Great Miners’ Strike, won the Audience Award at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival where it was premiered last month.

The film combines a wonderful mix of elements to illuminate the strike. First hand testimony comes from ex-miners, campaigners from Women Against Pit Closures and members of black, student and gay and lesbian support groups.

These are voices rarely heard in films — articulate, sharp as knives, working class rank and file activists. The film contains a treasury of archive footage painstakingly gathered and assembled. It is not the usual media footage and much has never been shown before.

It includes scuffles at union meetings, pickets attempting to drive into Nottingham and being turned around by police, the crowds of union members at the funeral of picket David Jones and shocking video of the police riot at Orgreave.

Photographs from the strike are intercut with interview footage. Some of these (such as the one pictured below) have become iconic images of struggle between the British working class and the forces of the state and have won accolades as important pieces of photojournalism. Others have remained unseen until they were discovered by researchers working on the film.

Owen Gower, the film’s director, reconstructed some of the events the interviewees spoke about to illustrate various points. These work surprisingly well. One funny example occurs when a miner is so excited by the prospect of striking he goes to the pit to picket on the Saturday night before the strike is to start on Monday morning.

The initial idea for a film came from Mike Simons who worked as a journalist on Socialist Worker between 1982 and 1997 and covered the mining industry.

He says he became frustrated on the strike’s 25th anniversary because either no one was bothering to remember it or when they did they followed a right wing agenda. Mike has co-written two books on the strike but thought for the 30th anniversary a film might find a new audience.

“This feels different. Obviously Thatcher died; we’ve got a Tory government; austerity; New Labour failed. People wanted to remember this. I needed to do it and it was now or never. I wanted to put our side and give working class people a voice which they increasingly don’t have in the mainstream media, other than being stigmatised.”

Mike pays tribute to the young film-makers he worked with. His knowledge of the period and his contacts were matched by the energy and film-making abilities of producers Sinead Kirwan and Mark Lacey and director Gower. They were barely even born at the time of the strike but they brought commitment and valuable new angles.

“We wanted to make a film that spoke to people who were involved at the time to give them a voice, and also to people who didn’t know what a miner or picket was who were just angry.”

Louise went to the film’s premier with three friends. They all came away inspired, she tells me. She was involved in her student union’s miners’ support group in London was twinned with a pit in Kent. The strike got her into political activism. “It was life-changing. You had to take sides”, she says. “That’s why the film is so important. After the strike you needed an analysis. You can’t just run around being an activist but have to understand the failures. It didn’t have to be that way — practical things could have had a big effect on the outcome. The miners were betrayed by the leadership of the Labour Party and trade unions.”

It was the young audience that inspired Louise. At the discussion session after the premier an activist from UK Uncut made links between the miners’ strike and campaigns today, saying people need to learn from past struggles. Louise says, “You learn the lengths the state is prepared to go to to crush a strike of that significance. And it very nearly didn’t manage to beat them.”

Funding for the film has come from nine national unions, over 100 union branches and hundreds of individuals, the Barry Amiel & Norman Melburn Trust contributed some charitable funds and the production company Dartmouth Films looked after the money.

The film has a licence for festival screenings but to receive the impact it deserves, it needs a general release. To secure this, the film-makers have to raise another £100,000 to license the archive footage. That will enable it to go into cinemas and be made into a DVD.

The film will be officially released in the autumn. In the meantime Mike encourages activists to organise events around film showings at trade union and community events. So if you think your union branch might want to show the film in the future, why not get it to make a donation now? As Mike says, “We can use the past to fuel the struggles of the present.”


For full details and notice of future showings go to the film’s website: www.the-enemy-within.org.uk.