It’s obvious to even the most uninterested observer that British politics is in a bit of a state at the moment. Wherever you sit on the political spectrum, it’s clear that this is a country in the midst of a period of division. With that in mind, now seems like an interesting time for The Big Meeting – a documentary about the annual Durham Miners’ Gala, which is one of the largest trade union gatherings in the UK.
The film is the second doc from production company Shut Out the Light, which previously made Nature of the Beast about the famed Labour MP Dennis Skinner. Like that movie, this is a celebration of the solidarity between working-class people and an undeniably moving depiction of unity born of tradition. Director Daniel Draper, who was also behind the camera for Nature of the Beast, structures the movie around the 2018 gala, meeting the people behind the event as well as spinning off to explore the rich history of the event.
An early audio clip of actor Richard Burton, who was a coal miner’s son, features him asserting that “miners believe themselves to be the aristocrats of the working class” and there’s certainly a feeling that this event represents a celebration of everything working class. Unsurprisingly, there’s not much love for the current Tory government – one interviewee wears a “Still Hate Thatcher” badge – and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is treated like the epitome of celebrity. This isn’t necessarily an outwardly polemical film, but it’s not one that spends a lot of time criticising the views of its subjects.
The gala itself is depicted through hefty use of a split-screen style that doesn’t entirely work, but it’s always compelling to witness the mass co-operation and celebration of the day. The Big Meeting does a stellar job of bringing to life the sheer emotional impact of the gala, from its marching brass bands to the intricate history and heritage of the banners that are held aloft by the various groups. There’s a real sense of how significant this event is to working-class culture in the North East, and that will resonate even for those who couldn’t disagree more with the political stance of these people.
Draper spins away from the main gala to focus on different elements of the culture around Durham’s mining past. One illuminating segment discusses just how close mining art came to disappearing forever, while another goes into some depth on the importance of the aforementioned banners. This is a film that has the utmost respect for the community, and that affection is so keenly felt through the storytelling that it’s hard not to want to join in by the time Billy Bragg arrives to sing a rousing rendition of ‘There is Power in a Union’.
The Big Meeting is a documentary that doesn’t so much educate its audience as it does drop them right into the heart of an experience that is hugely emotional to those who take part. When one interviewee audibly tears up while discussing playing bass drum within the perfect acoustics of Durham Cathedral, it’s yet another example of just how powerful this event is.
This film was always going to resonate within left-wing political circles, and in the part of the country in which it is set, but its true significance is in how universal its emotional impact proves to be. It’s a hymn to solidarity and a reminder that it would be a tragedy to forget a part of our heritage which would otherwise risk fading away.
Dir: Daniel Draper
Scr: Daniel Draper
Cast: Charlotte Austin, Richard Burgon, Ian Lavery, Paul Mason, Lynn Gibson, Dennis Skinner, Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders
Prd: Christie Allanson, Daniel Draper
DOP: Allan Melia
Music: Patrick Dineen
Run time: 91 mins
The Big Meeting is in UK cinemas from 6th September.