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Kopple documentaries explore both sides of history


While trying to find something to write about this morning, I searched both my memory and my Internet connection, looking for inspiration. It's been awhile since I've seen America's streets burning, so I've been profoundly affected by that.

Then I stumbled across a website that carried the headline "20 Radical Films to Watch in the Age of Trump." And No. 2 on the list is one of the documentaries that I remember as being influential not just on the film business as a whole but on me as a movie fan.

The documentary? "Harlan County USA," directed by Barbara Kopple. A two-time Oscar-winner for Best Documentary Feature (she won again in 1991 for "American Dream"), Kopple is the definition of the classic documentarian: She took her camera to rural Kentucky to cover a miner's strike and filmed everything as if she were the proverbial fly on the wall.

Just a couple of years later, Errol Morris would help change the whole approach to documentaries, beginning with 1978's "Gates of Heaven" and, in particular, 1988's "The Thin Blue Line." But in 1976 — and throughout 1977 when "Harlan County USA" won widespread release — Kopple defined what a documentary director did.

As the story, written by Christina Newland, points out, Kopple and her crew — comprising mostly women — had spent years getting to know the miners and their families in Harlan County. The sense of trust they'd earned was present when, in 1974, Kopple and her crew were, Newland wrote, "bravely following them to the picket line in spite of threats from company 'scabs.' As a result, the scenes Kopple and her crew are privy to are riveting; she is knocked sideways in a hail of bullets, and witness to the solidarity as well as the squabbles of the tough-minded coalition of miner’s wives."

"Combining plaintive protest song with displays of the miners’ abject poverty," Newland continued, "Kopple underlines the need for Brookside mining company to improve its workers’ living conditions—or else."

What's ironic is that as inspiring as "Harlan County USA" eventually is, Kopple's "American Dream" is all about a workers' protest that failed. And if there is a lesson about workers' dignity in the her first film, there's a glaring subsequent lesson in her second.

As the late Roger Ebert wrote, "I think the lesson is that the American tradition of collective bargaining will break down if companies can simply ignore a legal strike, hire replacements, and continue as before. There was a time in American history when such behavior by management would have been seen as not only illegal but immoral. The new management philosophers who won ascendency in the 1980s dismiss such views as sentimentalism. They are concerned only with the bottom line, where they see profits, not people."

And the further lesson for us today, offered by these two films in tandem? That history is a pendulum, swinging to and fro, and the rights won today must be fought for tomorrow. That's the way it's always been, which is a thought that is half depressing, half inspiring, and fully fitting with what's going on in the world at this very moment.

"Harlan County USA" is streaming through the subscription services offer by the Criterion Channel and by HBO Max. "American Dream" apparently isn't available for streaming but DVDs can be purchased through Cabin Creek Films.

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