A week after the film was finished I took it to Harlan County to show it to the people there and the Klan hung a goat right by the place where I was going to show it with the initials KKK in its belly. So the screening had to be an armed screening. Miners had to stand around with shotguns to make sure nothing happened. Before that they had called me up to tell me what was happening so I brought a film down called The Ku Klux Klan: The Invisible Empire that was made in 1965. I also brought down Leo Hurwitz’s Native Land, and we showed these from house to house all over Harlan County.
Barbara Kopple, director of Harlan County, USA, in an open discussion recorded in The Documentary Conscience by Alan Rosenthal (1980, p. 314)
A male director can have a series of failures and still get hired. Sometimes movies don’t work, and I feel like if it stars a woman or is directed by a woman, the wheels can’t fall off the train. If this movie directed by a woman does well and this movie directed by a woman does well and then one doesn’t, it’s ‘oh, people don’t like movies directed by women.’
10 Women Directed Films About the Workers & the Workforce
Blackboards | Samira Makhmalbaf | 2000 Clockwatchers | Jill Sprecher | 1997 Dance Girl Dance | Dorothy Arzner | 1940 The Governess | Sandra Goldbacher | 1998 Harlan County U.S.A. | Barbara Kopple | 1976 I Like It Like That | Darnell Martin | 1994 A League of Their Own | Penny Marshall | 1992 The Nanny Diaries |Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini | 2007 Zero Dark Thirty | Kathryn Bigelow | 2012 Zero Motivation | Talya Lavie | 2014
For those that don’t know I love documentaries. They keep my interest, teach me things I wouldn’t otherwise know, and usually show a world view I wouldn’t see otherwise. That doesn’t stand true for my favorite of all because it’s about where I live and the people of the community I’ve lived in all of my life.
Harlan County, USA was shot over some years and released in 1976. It captures the coal miner strikes at Brookside (my home) and Closplint. A time when this place was as bloody as any western. Houses were shot up and dynamited. Company thugs threatened and killed the strikers as scabs funneled into the mines. Women laid in front of cars, men and women ended up in jail. At one point a gatling gun even came into play.
The documentary captures all of that. At some points during filming Barbara Kopple and Kevin Keating (who I believe was the cameraman) were even attacked and threatened with guns. It shows the times in exceptionally raw detail and shows what my small community went through to gain living wages for it’s workers.
I say all of this because the full film is on Youtube and I strongly urge anyone interested in where I’m from, worker’s rights, or documentaries in general to watch it.
Kopple is an American documentary filmmaker. She took a single class in Cinéma Vérité where she met a secretary who worked for the Maysles brothers and dropped the class in order to intern for them. After crewing on other people’s films for several years she co-directed the film Winter Soldier which documented war crimes American soldiers had perpetuated in Vietnam. She, along with the rest of the filmmakers, chose to keep their directorial credits anonymous and she is not officially credited as a director on the film.
In 1976 Kopple made her official directorial debut with Harlan County, USA, a documentary on the coal miner’s strike in Harlan County. Kopple and her crew spent several year ingratiating themselves with the miners and filmed them on the picket line as they were threatened and shot at. Kopple won an Oscar for Best Documentary for the film.
Kopple did not direct another theatrical documentary until 1990 when she, along with Cathy Caplan, Thomas Haneke, and Lawrence Silk, made the film American Dream, which documented the unsuccessful strike of workers against the Hormel Foods corporation. She won an Oscar for that film as well.
Her 2006 film Shut up & Sing, which she co-directed with Cecilia Peck, documented the fallout the Dixie Chicks received after Natalie Maines expressed her displeasure of the invasion of Iraq and said she was ashamed President George W. Bush was from Texas.
She was nominated for an Emmy for her 2013 film Running From Crazy in which Mariel Hemingway discussed the long history of mental illness in her family going back to her grandfather, writer Ernest Hemingway.
Kopple continues to work extensively as a director in both TV, theatrical documentaries and feature films.
This Oscar-winning documentary by Barbara Kopple chronicles the coal miners strike in Harlan County, Kentucky in the ‘70s. It follows the story of the miners struggle with the company during the 13-month strike.
It is clear that Kopple and her crew dedicated years filming this Direct Cinema-esque documentary. Kopple weaves a story through the candid conversations of the miners and the miners’ wives, who make up a large majority of the picketers. She follows them through their meetings, their 5am picketing, and their porch-side discussions. Kopple and her crew filmed day and night to catch every major moment in the strike.
They capture an amazing scene when the company hired “gun-slingers” shoot at the picketers. Kopple and her crew were knocked out. In an interview Kopple stated, “I found out later that they planned to kill us that day. They wanted to knock us out because they didn’t want a record of what was happening.” The chaos and dire situation of the miners is strongly portrayed through Kopple’s filmmaking. In a later scene, one wife reveals to the other picketers that, if needed, she will shoot back in defense with a gun she keeps in her blouse.
Although the first half of the film can be slow and disjointed at times, the story picks up quickly when the company workers literally bring out the guns. The film comes to a climax when miner Laurence Jones is shot in the head and dies, leaving behind his 16-year-old wife and 5-month-old daughter. Kopple secured access to the hospital room and funeral of Mr Jones, highlighting the distraught community he left behind.
Throughout this story, Kopple weaves the music of the miners, filmed and recorded on location. From a song sung by a miner’s wife at home, to a song sung by an 80-year-old woman at a union meeting, to a song sung by a mass of picketers, this soundtrack carries the documentary.
Kopple’s dedication to this story and the lives of the miners shines through in this film. Through the closely filmed conversations, it is easy to get a sense of what it might be like to be at the picket site or the wives’ meetings. While the story is not the best I’ve ever seen, the passion in the filmmaking is unbeatable.