Socialism can look like a series of policy positions. It can be described as a movement of politicians who are committed to, for example, renationalising the railways, raising taxes on the wealthy or spending more on welfare. It is these things, but that is the tip of a much larger iceberg. Socialism is a culture, a history, an outlook, even a way of being. This culture is what has given life to socialism over the decades. It is deeper and has more emotional resonance than policy positions.
One of the institutions in this culture in Britain is the Durham Miners’ Gala, which takes place every second Saturday in July the city of Durham. It’s a celebration of radical left culture, a bringing together of like minds in solidarity and rallying point for the movement.
A new documentary called The Big Meeting, directed by Daniel Draper, has captured the vibrancy, diversity and energy of the gala for everyone. “Visiting and filming the Gala in 2016, I was exposed to the colour, noise and environment for the first time. It’s something I’ve struggled to articulate into words to people ever since,” Draper said. I myself have never been, but this film made we want to go. It captures how exciting it is.
The Gala began in 1871 and was started by miners’ trade unions. Today it takes place at the old Racecourse in Durham and attracts representatives from many different groups in the labour movement. Its history has been interwoven with the history of the trade unions, the Labour Party and the radical left of British politics for the last century and a half.
The gala consists of many things that are iconic of left-wing working class culture, such as brass bands (many affiliated to collieries), old banners of trade unions and radical organisations, marches and speeches from leaders of the labour movement. There is also live music from Billy Bragg and people selling radical books and pamphlets. All of these are staples of left-wing culture, but at the gala their power is felt. Colliery bands and banners come to life when they are in the presence of so many people who I appreciate the rich history they embody.
A sense of the scale and energy
Filmed over the course of the 135th gala, the film uses observational documentary techniques to immerse the audience in the event. Interviews and voice over and kept to a minimum to make space for close, fly-on-the-wall observations of the people attending the gala. This brings the atmosphere to life. As a viewer, you get a sense of what it is like to be amidst the crowds, marches and music. Montage is used to show the vast range of people, groups and activities and split screen is employed to show different events in the gala occurring simultaneously.
The film follows a few characters through their experience of the gala. This allows us to get a sense of the scale and energy of the gala. “I don’t think words can do justice to such an occasion - I feel like the Gala is a living and breathing organism, something not static, but immovable - a celebration of working-class life, not just today, but almost as if it takes place in the past and future simultaneously.” Draper said.
The film features grandees of the left. There is footage of a speech from Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders appears via a video message to the gala and the film also features interviews with Paul Manson, DBC Pierre and others played over old photographs and historic footage of galas gone. The later puts the current gala into its historic context and shows how it’s the modern embodiment of a radical tradition.
The presence of these well-known figures are supplementary to the film. The main focus of the documentary is on local gala attendees. We follow Charlotte Austin, a student at Oxford University whose family is of old Country Durham Mining stock, who volunteers for the People’s Bookshop selling radical left-wing books at the gala. There is also Laura Daly who is introducing a new banner celebrating women’s’ history in the labour movement. We meet Robert McManners who collects and chronicles working class left-wing art. It is through their time at the gala that we experience it.
The film is an unvarnished portrait of the gala's history. There are candid discussions about the sexual encounters that took place at past galas, where the event was an opportunity to escape from the restrictive sexual mores of the day. There scenes showing the heavy drinking that some partake in. A more saccharine film would have glossed over these aspects, but this film shows what the gala is like and has been like.
This is not presented as a criticism of the gala, more a warm reflection of how the gala reflects all aspects of what people need from radical politics. Yes, there are great speeches outlining a vision for a bold new world, but also a chance for people to let loose and throw off the restrictions and judgments of society, if only for a little while.
Pride in mining communities
There are sombre moments to the film. There is a service that takes place in Durham cathedral where new banners are blessed and brass bands play that captures the solemnity of the history of the labour movement that is being celebrated and pays homage to the struggles of the past.
This reflects the gala’s long and proud history, but it’s also a modern event that embodies the radical left today. The film follows the introduction of a new banner celebrating the contribution of the woman of Durham. There are also interviews with LGBT activists, including representatives of Lesbians and Gays Support The Miners who were immortalised in the film Pride. There is a focus on current struggles for liberation and self-determination around the world such, just as there was a focus on Irish self-determination or Civil Rights in the past.
The gala, and by extension this film, is a celebration of working class and radical left culture. It’s wonderful to see the joy and pride that the attendants have in our culture captured on film, as equally worthy the subject of a documentary as the Royal Ballet.
The film shows people with a huge sense of pride in coming from a mining community, which is not often depicted on film. The film shows people who are proud to be on the left, gathered together, having a good time and organising to continue the struggle for a fairer society. It evokes a strong sense of community, of everyone belonging to a radical left culture. This sense of everyone being together, being equally valid and partaking in a rich left-wing culture is the essence of socialism.
THE BIG MEETING will be released in UK cinemas 6th September www.galafilm.co.uk