Strike or Die

Strike or Die is an odd wee documentary. It’s very loose in its formation, and the story it tells is much more a watercolour of the sense of its subject, than a linear, stark polemic. It juxtaposes memories and footage of the miners strike in the French industrial town of Merlebach in the early 90s as the mines were being shut down, with the current inhabitants, living a generation on, and paints the impact, even indirectly, upon them.

This probably isn’t how I would have told this story. Strike or Die starts from the outside and winds in, whereas I would have perhaps started from the centre and wound out. Because the film seems a little disjointed to start. You have these separate, disparate stories. There is a boxing club, where the coach trains the upcoming generation of fighters. There are the teenage pals, who bum about the shows, eating toffee apples, and trying to figure out how they’ll make a living after school. There is an older couple sitting in their livingroom, coming to terms with the result of a work accident which has left the husband unable to play the guitar – his trade of 30 years. There is an ex-miner, trying to collect in a single room the history of the miner’s strike, filling plastic tubs full of tear gas cannister shrapnel that was shot at them. At first it feels quite disjointed, but slowly it grows together to show a portrait of a community, and while the miner’s strike seems quite removed from these random threads of everyday life, as they wind closer together a common theme appears – one of fighters, of those who endure, who insist on their own worth, their own dignity, their own right to a good life. This is their inheritance.

My favourite scene in this is when the two teenagers go to the official mining museum for a cheap day out. (This is not the one-room makeshift job being put together by ex-miners, but the tourist attraction that was made out the old mine, with beautiful glass displays and scrolling videos.) They ask the tour guide, “What about the strikes?” The tour guide tells them, “Well, of course, there were strikes but obviously the history of the mine is not one of conflicts, we wouldn’t put up anything about that.” The teenager asks, “What about the diseases the miners got? Black lung, emphysema, that sort of thing. Were they well paid because the work was so dangerous?” “Oh,” says the tour guide, “the contribution the miners made could never be paid enough, their contribution was always more than their wage could reflect,” he philosophises next to the oil paintings of the mine owners who never spent a day working in that mine.

It reminds me of how American plantations were often painted in U.S. histories, everyone working together happily for a common purpose, dignified industry. How ludicrous and transparent a lie it seems to outsiders, that one folk were doing the working, and one folk were making the wealth. That one folk had oil paintings of themselves in finery, and one folk had their backs broken. And all resistance and revolt erased, because there could be no such dissent when there could be no such reason for it in this harmonious idyll. The European version of erasure of history seems subtler to us because we are in it.

Throughout the film there is a visual motif. The skeins of smoke that blew through the streets in the 90s from 5000 tear gas bombs dropped by helicopter on striking miners, drift through the scenes in current day, through this community of people trying to carve out their piece of life. The message is clear: The smoke has not yet cleared. The dust has not yet settled. This battle is not over. And we have yet to see who will win.

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