JUNE 17, 2001. In a muddy field in the north of England near a giant slag heap, British film director Mike Figgis is engulfed in a crowd of picketers who are slugging it out with massed ranks of bobbies in full riot gear. As the protesters hurl themselves against a wall of Plexiglas shields, only to be driven back by mounted police brandishing batons, Figgis dodges missiles and blows and keeps on filming. The conflict shifts to the nearby village of Orgreave, and the intrepid auteur is still there in the thick of it, clutching his Steadicam. The acclaimed director of 1995's Oscar-winning Leaving Las Vegas and the split-screen, digital art-house hit Timecode (2000) has relocated from Hollywood to this remote and unprepossessing spot to shoot British artist Jeremy Deller's reenactment of the Battle of Orgreave," one of the most painful and momentous episodes in Britain's recent history.
It was in Orgreave, almost exactly seventeen years earlier (on June 18, 1984), that some five thousand striking coal miners clashed with--and were savagely routed by--a force of nearly eight thousand riot police outside the South Yorkshire village's coking plant. The Battle of Orgreave, as the events of that day were quickly dubbed, marked a pivotal moment in the bitter dispute between Margaret Thatcher's Tory government and Arthur Scargill's National Union of Miners (NUM). Ostensibly, the miners were striking to save their communities and livelihood from Thatcher's draconian program of mass pit closures. But both sides were well aware that Orgreave was just one part of a carefully planned campaign to break trade union power and introduce market forces into Britain's state-owned industries. And the campaign succeeded.
Last summer's rerun of the Battle of Orgreave--commissioned by the art agency Artangel--forms the core of Figgis's film of the same name, which premiered at the London Film Festival in November and will soon air on the UK's Channel 4. Using a straightforward documentary format-no split screens or Hollywood FX here--Figgis spliced footage of Deller's scaled-down version of the original conflict with a mixture of archival material and, most crucially, firsthand accounts by Orgreave veterans who also participated in the performance. Figgis adeptly demonstrates how Deller's project acted as a poultice to draw out individual and collective memories of an episode that, despite its enormous social and economic consequences, has now largely been buried amid a welter of misinformation. (It even emerges that the BBC reversed the sequence of its news footage to present the miners throwing stones and the police charging in response, when in fact the police instigated the violence.
Deller's Battle of Orgreave was more than playacting. Although the event was orchestrated by Britain's leading reenactment expert, Howard Giles, and involved enthusiasts from more than twelve historical societies more accustomed to assuming the roles of Roundheads and Cavaliers, over a third of those taking part in the reenactment were volunteers who had been involved in the original conflict, both miners and policemen. …