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Coal Face, 1935

35mm film, black and white, 12 min.

GPO Film Unit, U.K. Director: Alberto Cavalcanti (uncredited) Production: John Grierson Verse: W. H. Auden (uncredited) Music: Benjamin Britten

In 1934 Brazilian-born experimental filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti was hired to work at the UK General Post (GPO) Film Unit in order to introduce the innovative sound techniques he had learnt while working for French talkies. Together with producer John Grierson, he also recruited the young poet W. H. Auden and a bright young student from the Royal College of Music, Benjamin Britten (Anthony and Mansell 2011:45,103). Their collaboration soon bore fruit in an “experiment of sound” that, in addition to paying homage to the work of mining, constitutes one of British cinema’s most avant-garde documentary films. Coal Face is a remarkable montage of industrial scenes and statistics read in voice-over, edited together with Britten’s incidental music, which consists of stylised noises and choruses. The soundtrack swells into a final proletarian love madrigal, penned by Auden and in which the first two lines call on the “lurcher-loving collier, black as night” to “follow your love across the smokeless hill” (ibid 203). These elements were re-applied by Cavalcanti’s crew a year later to make Night Mail (1936), the GPO Film Unit’s most famous work. These films offer a rare glimpse of the socially engaged experiment of three key modernist artists who sought to marry realism and avant-gardism in pursuit of a new documentary genre. CM