When Margaret Thatcher died in April 2013, rather than the usual outpouring of grief you would expect for a national leader’s passing, the news (encouragingly or disparagingly) was littered with of hoards of jubilant revelers celebrating her demise. This reaction was, in part, due to the infamous miners’ strike – and the intensity of the reverie is an indication of how important this issue was and is, to those affected by it. Owen Gower is a television producer who has worked with multiple national broadcasters, making his directorial debut into feature film with the documentary Still the Enemy Within, opening at this year’s Sheffield Documentary Film Festival. Having worked alongside Beeban Kidron and David Attenborough, and for National Geographic and The History Channel, his pedigree for non-fiction media looks promising. I pose some questions to him about the film via email.
Tell me about the project?
Still the Enemy Within is a feature documentary that tells the story of the 1984-85 miners’ strike from the point of view of the miners and supporters who fought on the front line. These were the people Thatcher labelled ‘The Enemy Within’. They faced an onslaught by the government, the police and the media as they fought for a year to defend their jobs and communities but until now, many have never spoken on camera before.
Why did you choose this particular subject?
Having only just been born when the miners’ strike happened, it’s a still a story that feels really relevant to today. There are so many amazing stories and events that a lot of young people don’t know about. The strike is a story of ordinary people standing up for what they believed in and is one filled with drama, humour and even tragedy. Much of this history has stayed hidden until now.
Why do you feel this is still relevant today?
With the 30th anniversary, this year will see a huge battle of interpretation for the legacy of the strike. I think many young people who come to this subject for the first time will be shocked about what the miners went through in their fight for British industry and communities. 30 years on we can still be inspired by this story of what ordinary people can do.
What is your interpretation of the legacy of the strike?
The legacy of the strike really has two sides. On the one hand, its defeat has had a huge number of consequences in Britain. Manufacturing was decimated in favour of deregulated finance, trade unions were severely weakened and mining communities themselves were devastated. But on the other hand, the way that ordinary people came together to fight back against this still shines out as an inspiration to people and transformed the lives of tens of thousands of people involved.
What surprised you most as you were making the film?
By far and away the biggest surprise for me was the humour. The miners were filled with hilarious stories often in the middle of mayhem. Whether it’s pretending to be joggers to get past police road blocks or accidentally setting fire to their own leg right in the middle of the Battle of Orgreave, they had us in stitches the whole time. It’s something you rarely hear about with the strike but, despite the difficulties and the hardship, for many of the people in our film it was the best year of their lives.
Given the 2013 strike mishap at Grangemouth, do you still see striking as effective method of challenging government?
Absolutely. After the miners were defeated the common argument was (and often still is) that if they can’t win, no one can. But the miners’ strike was not an inevitable defeat and they came very close to winning a number of times – only because of a lack of unity across the trade union movement. For me the lesson is that you can win but only if you stick together.
The trade union Unite has been criticised recently because of its strong ties to Labour. Has the shape of the Trade Union changed since the 80s?
Yes and no. There are less people in trade unions than there were then but they still represent 6 million people in this country and in the words of one of our miners, ‘if they stand united, they can move mountains’.
In last year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival three of the awards were won by documentaries. Would you agree the popularity of documentaries is on the rise?
There’s a definitely a huge and growing audience out there. People are beginning to really take it seriously as a genre, especially at the cinema. And the fact that some of the most successful are political documentaries, I think shows there’s a real audience out there for films that challenge and inspire.
How have you found directing your first feature length documentary?
It’s been a lot of hard work but also a lot of fun and it’s been absolutely fantastic meeting the characters in the film. The fact that many have never spoken on camera has made it a real honour that they’ve trusted us to tell their story.
Do you have any plans or ideas about what you would make a film about next?
I really believe in telling the stories of people that the mainstream media has ignored or kept hidden. And so we have a number of projects in development but sadly they’ll have to remain top secret for now!