Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Not to be negative about contemporary filmmakers, but with today's availability of high-quality pro-sumer video equipment it now seems as if everybody is making documentaries. Films are made on every subject imaginable, often openly advocating an activist agenda. Although filmmakers are still typed as left wing, any look at cable television will reveal a strong vein of ultra-conservative 'docu' filmmaking. Back in the 1960s there was a movement called "cinema verité" that promoted the idea that the filmmaker should be an invisible fly on the wall, recording the truth of a subject without affecting it.
The pioneering independent docu filmmakers learned quickly that their cameras would definitely affect any situation involving people and that the choice of subject matter automatically negates the notion of impartiality or neutrality. Barbara Kopple's Harlan County, U.S.A. doesn't pretend to be impartial. Independently produced, Kopple's show was shaped from hundreds of hours of film and is an unashamedly partisan work.
The show begins with a title written in blood and proceeds to set up the conflict: United States coal miners in 1972 are grossly underpaid and made to work in unsafe conditions. The companies house them in shacks without water and benefits of any kinds are mostly unknown. Kopple became involved in this particular strike situation when she investigated a Union election movement inspired by the shooting death of a miner and his whole family. A reform organization called Miners For Democracy resulted. Her film is really about a class war.
The movie drops us into a situation not unlike a power struggle in the old west -- but this is 1972 in Kentucky. Harlan County is known as a tough place for unions, as the mine owners use guns and hired thugs to intimidate the local working population. Union organizers are considered Socialists or Communists and it's difficult to organize until people are personally involved. The brutality, lies and indifference of the owners lead to a major strike.
Kopple and her crew started as outsiders but were made welcome when the strikers realized they were on the side of the union. The cameras definitely galvanize some situations: Some reactions, such as the emotions at a funeral, were perhaps inspired by the presence of the camera. But the presence of the camera also inhibited violence. Many situations develop into armed standoffs that could have become shoot-outs, but as "Nobody wants to commit murder in living color" people stay their trigger fingers. Even when Kopple was broke and had no film, she'd come to the picket line and pretend to be filming.
With such good coverage the film has everything required in a drama from real life. As the editor says, the strength we see in the people is inspiring. It's also a different kind of feminist film, with tough-looking Appalachian mothers and grandmothers standing up to be counted. Unfavorable court orders limit miner demonstrations to 4 pickets so the women take over, not unlike a Greek play. And they're an amazing group of women. It's rather beautiful to see a dowdy housewife in a meeting voice her objections to "rabble rousing", only later to appear cheerful and motivated on a picket line.
The film's heroine is a feisty firebrand named Lois Scott, a stout woman with an iron resolve. When the mine owners train machine guns (!) on the picketers, she shows the camera the gun she's hidden in her bra. It doesn't take a genius to connect that image with the stereotype of women's lib bra burners.
Kopple does some pretty sneaky things, like sneaking shots in a courthouse. That's probably a genuine criminal offense. Today's court guards are much more attuned to the presence of cameras. Kopple also uses wireless microphones to steal private conversations, and even ambush people unawares, such as a New York cop during a picket demonstration. It results in great footage but is a definite invasion of privacy.
The drama is heightened by the violence of the company's gun thugs. Some of them were prisoners let out on parole (or so we're told). In the strongest material, the thugs acknowledge the camera as a key enemy. Scabs attack Kopple's crew and the women picketers come to the rescue. When the picketers won't back down the mine scabs murder a miner in his home. A meeting is convened to decide whether or not to start an all-out war. One voice from the crowd: "Take to shelter if you can and lay the lead to 'em."
The film has ample footage of its formidable villain. Basil Collins is the main gun thug and acts like the Black Bart character in a western, flashing his gun and using it to intimidate Kopple in a conversation. The strongest scene is when the women picketers present their sheriff with a warrant for Collins' arrest, and block the highway to the mine until it's served.
As a persuasive document, Harlan County, U.S.A. was much more effective than the first 'outsider' film about a strike, Herbert Biberman's relatively unsophisticated Salt of the Earth. That picture came out at the height of the Red-baiting years and really didn't have a chance. The two films are similar, however, in that the women take the lead role in the strike action. In 1976 it's difficult to call makers of Harlan County, U.S.A. a "bunch of Commies," even though the movie really is about worker rights versus corporate greed. A couple of years later Martin Ritt made Norma Rae, perhaps the first serious mainstream drama about union organizing in a southern textile mill.
Barbara Kopple and Nancy Baker met as members of the cooperative that made the scathingly righteous but largely unseen Winter Soldier four years earlier. Harlan County, U.S.A. reached a somewhat larger audience. Kopple went on to win more awards with another labor-oriented docu, 1991's American Dream.
Criterion's DVD of Harlan County, U.S.A. is a brilliant restoration of a film not all that frequently shown; Savant caught up with it on the old Z Channel in the early 1980s. The enhanced color transfer makes the most of what is actually a remarkably well-filmed show. People who remember grainy flat TV prints will be pleasantly surprised.
Disc producer Joanna Schiller's 'making of' featurette is a wonderful, concise distillation of the strengths of Harlan County, U.S.A. and a fine introduction for viewers who might be wary of sitting through 100 minutes of documentary. Ms. Kopple and her associates tell the story of the filming aided by reminiscences from surviving strikers. A lengthy Outtakes section presents songs by Appalachian miner Nimrod Workman and several unused scenes at public meetings and rallies. Lois Scott's daughter Bessie Cornet Parker shines in an outtake interview.
A separate interview with singer-songwriter Hazel Dickens adds another perspective; Hazel came upon the show only in post-production and composed a new song for the end credits. John Sayles is on hand to discuss the film's impact on labor consciousness and its effect on his film Matewan. He praises Koppel's handling of the sheriff's scenes, letting them play out to show the difficulty of the man's situation. He believes that Harlan County is an almost perfect documentary. The extras finish with a post-screening discussion of the film at 2005's Sundance hosted by Roger Ebert, with Kopple and her creative team.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Harlan County, U.S.A. rates:
Supplements: Audio commentary by Kopple and editor Nancy Baker; The Making of Harlan County, USA documentary featuring interviews with Kopple, crew members and strike participants featured in the film; Video interview with legendary bluegrass singer-songwriter Hazel Dickens; Outtakes; Video interview with director John Sayles; A panel discussion from 2005 Sundance featuring Kopple and Roger Ebert; Essays by film scholar Paul Arthur and music journalist Jon Weisberger; Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 17, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson