________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 15 . . . . March 16, 2007


Men of the Deeps.

John Walker (Writer & Director). Terry Greenlaw & Kent Martin (Producers).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2003.
57 min., 37 sec., VHS or DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: C9103 012.

Subject Headings:
Folk singers-Nova Scotia-Cape Breton Island-Songs and music.
Coal miners-Nova Scotia-Cape Breton Island-Songs and music.

Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.

Review by  Monika Grossenbacher.

***½ /4


For over 270 years coal has been mined in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Only one coal mine remains, five miles under the ocean.

In the 1920's, twelve thousand men worked in the coal mines. One hundred and thirty are left.

Men of the Deeps is a male Cape Breton chorus made up entirely of current or former mine workers. The film, Men of the Deeps, is not so much a history of the chorus, itself, as it is of the coal mining industry that created it and what happens to a community when that industry dies.

     The filmaker explains that it is not coal miners in general that have a tradition of singing, but that Cape Bretoners do, given their strong Scottish heritage. Given this, it feels natural and uncontrived to have the history of coal mining in Cape Breton chronicled and interspersed with the songs of the Men of the Deeps chorus.

     The history of Cape Breton coal mining is told through a series of interviews with various member of the Men of the Deeps, as well as separate interviews with some of their wives and mothers. There is a pervasive sense of pride for their profession that emerges from these interviews and an understanding that coal mining is not a livelihood but a way of life in Cape Breton. There is a considerable love for the danger and the challenge of working in the mine and a lingering respect for those that fought to create unions and give them the rights they have today, as told in a song about the Strike of 1923.

     One coal miner tells us about his son, who, having moved to Alberta to work, but then, having found out about an opening in the only remaining Cape Breton coal mine, asked his father to help him fund the trip back to Nova Scotia so he can apply immediately, reiterating the men's desire not only for a livelihood, but to remain a part of the Cape Breton community.

     Also unmistakable in the interviews is the sense of camaraderie among the men; a camaraderie that is the result of working in a profession where your life could easily one day depend on that of your co-workers. When the miners list some of their work injuries, it is a sobering reminder of just how dangerous the profession is. 

     "Twelve men gone and no time to cry or bid farewell," they sing in a song about the Explosion of 1979. The Explosion of 1979 was an electrical explosion in one of the mines that killed 10 miners instantly and eventually claimed the lives of two more. One of the miners explains that, when the Men of the Deeps first sang the song, he couldn't bring himself to sing it. He was so touched by the lyrics that he could only stand and listen. Or as another miner explains, "Coal mining provided the dollars and the bread; the chorus brings much more."

     In the end, as the Men of the Deeps ponder the inevitable end of the coal mining industry, the film, too, begs the question: Can a community built around an industry, be strong enough to survive after that industry dies?

     It's perhaps one of the film's miners himself who best answers the question as he makes the transition from miner to call centre employee. It's an uneasy transition, filled with moments of humour and awkwardness, but, as he, himself, puts it, "I'm still in Cape Breton. Bottom line, I'm still in Cape Breton." 

Highly Recommended.

Monika Grossenbacher is a Language and Literature major from the University of Toronto. She lives and works in downtown Toronto, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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