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. Volume VIII Number 14 . . . . March 15, 2002
Westray is a hard hitting, moving account of the Westray mine explosion of May 9, 1992, in which 26 men were killed underground. One widow recalls seeing a bird in the house that day, and another prays that they "just bring something out" of her husband's remains. That, along with the repeated counting out of the twenty seconds of life that the miners had following the explosion is the beginning of this gut-wrenching film.
This is not an easy production to watch as the film follows the lives of three widows and three miners whose lives were nearly destroyed by the explosion. Those who lost loved ones and those who tried to warn the mine owners and government officials of the mine's danger are featured through interviews and re-enactments of the key events.
Director Paul Cowan follows the initial optimism of the announcement of the jobs -15 years of prosperity for Pictou County. Many were drawn home to Nova Scotia after years away, thrilled to be back and able to work. However, it is made clear that the Westray was never right. Following its first shift on September 11, 1991, there were concerns about the mine's safety. Those who tried to warn of its dangers or seek safety standards found themselves out of work or silenced by fear of job loss.
Cowan takes the viewer through the day-to-day lives of the miners and their families and allows them the time to tell their stories. In this way, their loss, frustration and anger are shared by the viewer. The film also goes underground and explains the nature of coal mining and why it is so dangerous.
This film is clearly on the side of the miners and their families. The viewer cannot help but feel anger at those responsible. However, the mine owners and government safety inspectors are not given the chance to justify their actions. Given the tone of the film, it is doubtful that they could.
Westray has potential in many senior classes: Law, Geography, Economics, Politics or in any subject that deals with moral issues. Near the end of the film, Cowan lists 537 coal mine deaths over the last century and a half. With the advances in modern technology, it is made clear that the Westray disaster happened because coal was prized more than human life.
Westray was the recipient of a 2002 Genie in the category of "Best Documentary."
Frank Loreto is a teacher-librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Brampton, ON.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.