Harlan County, USA
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At the age of 26, independent filmmaker Barbara Kopple raised $9,000 for her first documentary feature and headed to Harlan County, Kentucky, an economically depressed area in the Appalachian Mountains where coal mining was the principal industry. She was intent on filming the then-current strike by the miners of Harlan County, Kentucky against their management, the Duke Power Company, but first, she had to gain the trust of the miners. After living among the local residents and getting to know them, Kopple eventually overcame their suspicions and began to chronicle the miners' struggle to join a union - the United Mine Workers - against the, often violent, resistance of the Duke Power Co. The result - Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976) - was an astonishingly intimate and passionate work that won the Oscar® for Best Documentary and recently was selected as one of twenty-five films by the Library of Congress to be placed on its Film Registry.
Harlan County, U.S.A. is not a traditional documentary in any sense of the word. It combines both cinema verite techniques with archival footage to create a context and background for the political struggle it depicts. Newsreels from the 1920s and '30s, interviews with doctors at the black lung center in West Virginia, information about the coal industry, and candid moments captured on film during the 13 month strike are expertly edited together to form a fascinating sociological study.
Throughout the filming of Harlan County, U.S.A., Kopple would periodically return to New York City, her home base, to take on small jobs as a means to finance her documentary. Even with additional donations from numerous friends and foundations, she still ended up $60,000 in debt upon completing the film. Of course, the financial problems were minor compared to the personal risks Kopple encountered on location in Harlan County. As she and cinematographer Hart Perry were present at numerous picket line demonstrations, they witnessed their share of riots and physical confrontations, and on occasion were knocked down, kicked, and shot at by non-union thugs. But the most powerful part of the experience for Kopple was meeting and talking to the older miners who shared their memories of previous union struggles. "They'd be talking, then they'd burst into incredible songs they had made up themselves," Kopple told David Sterritt for an interview in The Christian Science Monitor.
The music is certainly an important part of Harlan County, U.S.A. and throughout the film you can hear the soul-wrenching voice of Hazel Dickens, singing haunting ballads about black lung disease, hunger, and poverty on the soundtrack. A version of "Which Side Are You On?" by Florence Reece is also heard.
In The American Conscience by Alan Rosenthal, Kopple admitted she never had any major expectations about her film in regard to distribution or awards: "When I was filming in Harlan I didn't even really care if a film never came out of it. I think I was maybe more engaged in the struggle and using the film as a vehicle to get through it. It was something that I was just doing. I was working and I wasn't afraid when things started to happen because sometimes you're like a dumb animal behind a camera or a tape recorder...I think for me the struggle was to keep going from day to day, to stay alive, to keep raising the money and that was it. I just didn't think the film would ever be shown anywhere...I thought, 'OK. Maybe my friends will see it. Maybe the Whitney Museum will show it. Maybe the trade unionists will see it and the people in Harlan.' I never expected it to go much further than that and am still amazed by its reception."
Producer/Director: Barbara Kopple
Cinematography: Tom Hurwitz, Kevin Keating, Flip McCarthy, Phil Parmet, Hart Perry
Film Editing: Nancy Baker, Mirra Bank, Lora Hays, Mary Lampson
Original Music: Hazel Dickens, Merle Travis
By Jeff Stafford
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