Narrated by Australian actor David Field, Beneath Black Skies recounts the history of coal mining in the Illawarra region of southern NSW, predominately from the perspective of the miners, their wives and their union. Events are presented chronologically and episodically, beginning with the importance of coal and its discovery, the early days of convict mining, the difficult and dangerous nature of the mines and the early formation of a union, which culminated in the Battle of Bulli – a six month strike in which the miners’ wives stopped a train of strike breakers.
The film recounts early coal barons known for their extreme wealth and harsh treatment of miners, as well as a corrupt Australian prime minister. A cavalcade of disaster follows with the Bulli mine disaster in 1887 and Mt Kembla disaster in 1902, which is still Australia’s worst industrial disaster.
After the Depression and severe hardship on the Illawarra, the film recounts the rise of communist ideology and industrial rebellion on the coalfields, along with the role of the women and strike organisation. The devastating impact of black lung disease is covered in detail, exacerbated by the need for coal during World War Two. The aftermath of the war is covered with the 1949 Strike, the jailing of union leaders and the use of troops in the mines. This is followed by sections on the importance of pit ponies, the nature of power struggles between mine owners and miners, the 35 hour week and the 1979 Appin mine disaster.
The film draws heavily on archive from Hewers of Coal, which is combined with historical stills and other visuals. There is extensive use of dramatised re-enactments in different sections of the film, such as the women stopping a train during the Battle of Bulli and the Mount Kembla mine explosion and aftermath. Interviews with historical participants as well as academics and historians are also presented throughout.
- Broadcast on ABC TV.
Author: J Bird, 2023