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Day in the Life of a Coal Miner, A (1910)


Main image of Day in the Life of a Coal Miner, A (1910)
35mm, black and white, silent, 595 feet
Production CompanyKineto
SponsorLondon & North Western Railway

The work done by men and women at the coal face and the pit head.

Show full synopsis

Charles Urban's Kineto company initially specialised in "what we venture to assert are the more permanent uses of the Kinematograph, namely its application to purposes of instruction, and the widening of general knowledge".

Kineto's 'interest' films came as close as any of their era to what was later coined 'documentary' - a specific genre, distinct from other forms of non-fiction. Indeed, A Day in the Life of a Coal Miner has entered textbooks as a milestone in documentary's evolution.

Filmmakers had already begun to document industrial processes in detail, but few had so vividly shown how these are entwined with human lives lived. Intertitles play their part in this, anticipating the various tones adopted by the 'voice of God' narrations of later sound documentaries: mostly explanatory ("Locking the Lamps"); sometimes playful ("Belles of the (Black) Diamond Field"); sometimes symbolic ("Light After Darkness").

That the film is book-ended by staged sequences arguably strengthens rather than weakens its claim to be a documentary, 'creatively treating' rather than simply recording actuality. The scenes of the eponymous miner leaving and returning to his family transform the viewer's interpretation of the colliery footage in between (some of it also staged, underground cinematography not yet being technically feasible). Even more obviously fictionalised is the final scene, depicting a much wealthier family enjoying an evening by their coal fire. This, too, anticipates a standard documentary device, the contrasting case study. Here, it crudely but effectively locates the preceding action inside a class structure literally fuelled by the mineworkers' toil. Given the film's sanctioning by the Wigan Coal and Iron Co., ascribing subversive political intentions to it would probably be an interpretation too far, but it might have gently shaken some middle-class viewers from their complacency.

True, Kineto's innovations can be overstated: by later standards, the editing of shots within sequences is particularly sloppy. Yet this film is moving as well as informative. Placed halfway through it is a shot of a haggard female worker (doubtless much younger than she looks) and a very young male one, both staring out at the viewer - abjectly, it seems. In strictly narrative terms this shot is completely extraneous, but it adds an entire layer of meaning. The inclusion of footage unnecessary to the 'plot' but crucial to its impact on the viewer is another unconscious anticipation of the future stylistic repertoire of creative documentary.

Patrick Russell

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Early Cinema: Primitives and Pioneers'.

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
Complete film (9:28)
Production stills
Coal Face (1935)
Making Christmas Crackers (1910)
Mitchell and Kenyon: Black Diamonds (1904)
National Coal Board Film Unit (1952-84)
A Year in Film: 1910
Industrial and Corporate Films
King Coal