Seacoal ★★★★★

Founded in the North East in 1969, The Amber Film Collective's aim is to record working class life within the region, working with local communities and drawing upon a tradition of independent filmmaking, social realism, neo-realism, photography and documentary. A true collective that rejects creative didacticism, their first feature film, 1985's Seacoal is, like all their other works, not attributed to one director or author because it uses everyone within the production team.

The setting for Seacoal was Lynemouth Beach in Northumberland. For generations, the traveller community worked this beach, collecting waste coal from the sea and selling it on. An ancient tradition using draught horses and carts, Amber captures the dying days of the industry as capitalism squeezes out the small men and women who lived upon its economic outskirts, destroying their livelihood and community as a result.

Purchasing a caravan on the traveller site, Amber's production team lived with the seacoalers for two tumultuous years culminating in the miners' strike of '84 and '85. Capturing the day-to-day events of the community, they began to blend an experimental mix of documentary and drama, using observation, improvisation and reconstruction using actors (predominantly from the Amber team) and genuine seacoalers. Incredibly, you never once feel like anyone is acting and, were it not for the credits at the close, it's near impossible to identify who is the professional and who isn't.

At the heart of the film is the fictional thread Amber has weaved, concerning Ray (Ray Stubbs) who convinces his new girlfriend Betty (Amber Styles) and her young daughter Corrina (Corrina Stubbs) to move with him to Lynemouth, a beach he - like his father and grandfather before him - has previously worked. There they are introduced to seacoaling life, a world away from the abusive marriage she has left behind in Sunderland. Though the realities of the life proves harsh, Betty also finds a sense of community and of strong female solidarity that had previously alluded her. For Ray however, he finds that the industry is much changed; the exploitation at the hands of the hostile authorities and land owners (the Thompson brothers had purchased the beach, ensuring that any coal washed up on it automatically became theirs, affording the seacoalers only rights to that which could be retrieved whilst in the sea), combined with the miners' strike making coal scarce and snoopers at the DHSS, begins to have a terrible impact.

Seacoal is an important social document in that it captures the slow and painful death of a way of life that had existed for centuries yet had been largely elusive to the outside world. Amber records the industry with an integrity and an honesty that shows genuine respect for the dignity of - and most emphatically the right to - labour. Their clear and distinctive visual eye is astonishing to behold, capturing many bleakly beautiful scenes of its harsh and rugged locations and of the firsthand effects of '80s capitalism in the raw. A sequence in which Ray and his contact at the coalworks (played by much-missed Geordie actor Sammy Johnson, best known for his role as Jimmy Nail's sidekick Stick in the '90s BBC drama series Spender) share a pint in the pub is framed by the view of the street through the window behind them, which captures an almost Klondyke-like scene of a horse and cart trotting by with its black gold. Meanwhile, the scenes of the caravan site upon the cliff tops bring to mind that other slice of Americana; the migrant camps from the dust bowls of the Great Depression.

Highly recommended.

Number 77 in my 52 films by Women in 2019 challenge