Mining Disaster Commemoration to Screen in HD

Grey District Library/John Charlton photo collection

NZ On Air has invested a record $884,782 in an HD docudrama that could air in time for the 45th anniversary of a West Coast mining disaster.

Journey into Darkness – The Strongman Tragedy will tell the story of the Strongman Mine explosion that claimed the lives of 19 men, and the subsequent Commission of Inquiry.

The 90-minute telefeature is being produced for TV3 by A Bigger Picture’s Paula McTaggart in association with Gaylene Preston Productions.

It is NZOA’s biggest contribution yet to a single production under its Platinum Fund, which was set up to make high-end productions of historical and cultural importance that otherwise would struggle for funding.

The previous biggest contribution was $812,500 for another HD commission, Shackleton’s Captain, a 90-minute documentary for TV One that has a higher total budget because it has international funding, too.

According to TV3’s press release, Gaylene Preston will direct Journey’s dramatic content, which will blend dramatisation with interviews filmed by McTaggart and archive gathered over the past four years.

“I am humbled by the stories of lives completely thrown into chaos by that explosion in 1967,” Preston says.

“It is an honour to be involved in bringing the story of this terrible mine tragedy and inquiry to the screen.

“I have a coal sculpture by a Runanga miner friend that is a constant reminder of the many miners who have lost their lives, and continue to do so, in this hazardous profession.”

Opened in 1939, the state owned Strongman Mine (11 kilometres north-east of Greymouth) was the pride and flagship of NZ’s coal industry and the largest underground coal mine in the country.  On 19 January, 1967, an explosion blew through the section of the mine known as Greens No 2.

The telefeature is a labour of love for Runanga-born and raised Paula McTaggart, who comes from a long line of coal miners.  McTaggart has been developing the project since 2007, when a visit to her uncle, the late Ron Gibb, sparked her interest in this largely untold New Zealand tragedy.

Gibb was one of five men from Mines Rescue who received the British Empire Medal for their actions during the tragedy.

“Listening to his story I was acutely aware of the pain and suffering the tragedy had wrought on such a small community,” McTaggart explains.

“The more he spoke, the more I felt that this was a critical piece of New Zealand history that had been largely overlooked outside of the West Coast.

“My uncle and I talked about the possibility of a documentary and he shared with me his knowledge of the tragedy along with the material to go forward. Ron had a strong desire that the truth be told.”

McTaggart began filming interviews for the project in 2008. Key expert contributors include former Strongman manager and NZ chief inspector of mines, Harry Bell, who led a rescue team into Greens No 2 after the explosion and also the late Bill Munden who was a member of the investigation team.

TV3’s head of factual, Sue Woodfield, says the documentary’s gripping story of bravery and human resilience in the face of disaster will resonate with all New Zealanders.

“Although this project has been in development for several years, there’s a terrible sense of history repeating itself with the recent tragic events at Pike River, and the current Royal Commission.

“This is a very important film.”

McTaggart says the production team is interested in hearing from anyone who would like to be part of the documentary, at the email address:

“It is important that those involved have the opportunity to contribute to the project,” she says.  “I hope that more people will come forward to tell their individual stories, or to share photos, film footage or other materials.”

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