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Documentary and Propaganda

Filmmakers turn their cameras onto real life to make documentaries, or attempt to mold real life to an ideology through propaganda.


Harlan County U.S.A.

Barbara Kopple
(American, born 1946)

1976. 16mm film (color, sound), 103 min.

Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County U.S.A. was released at a time when few documentaries made it into mainstream culture. Her film broke that precedent. It documents a community in eastern Kentucky divided by a strike at its coalmine and gets to the heart of the struggle between industry and labor in America.

From the opening of Harlan County U.S.A., Kopple plunges viewers into the lightless coalmine. The first voice we hear is that of a miner yelling, “Fire in the hole!” before he sets off a blast. Then come more miners, faces streaked with coal dust, sliding belly-first down a makeshift chute into the earth. Kopple and her cinematographer, Kevin Keating, followed, filming the miners doing their dangerous work in cramped, disorienting darkness. Back above ground, the camera pulls out to reveal the mine’s setting: a shantytown of the Duke Power Company located in a clearing in the Appalachian Mountains. These scenes soon give way to scenes of striking miners. Overlaid text reads: “In the summer of 1973, the men at the Brookside Mine in Harlan, Kentucky voted to join the United Mine Workers of America. Duke Power Company and its subsidiary, Eastover Mining Company refused to sign the contract. The miners came out on strike.”

Interweaving her own footage with archival photographs and film, Kopple sets the miners’ effort to unionize into the larger history of the contentious relationship between the mining corporations and the people who toil for them. She lived with the Harlan County families for 13 months and grew close to them, which enabled her to document their story with striking intimacy and compassion. The women especially captivated her: they organized, agitated, and put their lives at risk on the picket line, using their bodies to block the strikebreakers and their gun-wielding allies. Kopple has said that the presence of her small team helped save lives, since nobody wanted to be captured on camera committing violence or murder.

The film’s soundtrack gives it additional power and roots it firmly to its place. Kopple chose songs indigenous to eastern Kentucky and the surrounding Appalachian region and commissioned path-breaking bluegrass artist Hazel Dickens to write a number of new songs. The music embodies the staunch determination of the miners and their families in their confrontation with the mine operators.

Harlan County U.S.A. won the 1976 Academy Award for Best Documentary. Despite this and the many other accolades Kopple has won, she maintains humility in relation to the working people who opened their lives to her camera, stating that her goal is “to be able to record first-hand their story as told by them.”1

Barbara Kopple, quoted in Roland Legiardi-Laura, “Barbara Kopple by Roland Legiardi-Laura,” BOMB, January 1, 1992, https://bombmagazine.org/articles/barbara-kopple/.
Barbara Kopple, quoted in “Harlan County U.S.A. at Sundance,” Harlan County U.S.A. DVD extra feature, 2005.

A genre encompassing nonfiction films intended to capture some aspect of reality, often for the purposes of instruction, education, or the development of a historical record.

A method of documentary filmmaking developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s in the US and Canada, in which filmmakers sought to capture their subjects as directly as possible. Reducing equipment and crews to bare essentials, they used handheld cameras and attempted to make themselves unobtrusive, allowing life to unfold before the camera. American Direct Cinema pioneers include Richard Leacock, Robert Drew, D. A. Pennebaker, and brothers Albert and David Maysles.

The person who sets up both camera and lighting for each shot in a film, the cinematographer has a major influence over the look and feel of a shot or scene, and is often as highly esteemed as the director. Cinematography is the art of positioning a camera and lighting a scene.

1. A series of moving images, especially those recorded on film and projected onto a screen or other surface (noun); 2. A sheet or roll of a flexible transparent material coated with an emulsion sensitive to light and used to capture an image for a photograph or film (noun); 3. To record on film or video using a movie camera (verb).

An image, especially a positive print, recorded by exposing a photosensitive surface to light, especially in a camera.

The customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.

A setting for or a part of a story or narrative.

The context or environment in which a situation occurs.

Barbara Kopple’s Passionate Approach to Filmmaking
Documentaries form the heart of Barbara Kopple’s wide-ranging work. Her studies in political science and psychology, followed by an apprenticeship with Direct Cinema pioneers Albert and David Maysles, helped shape her observant, compassionate, and unobtrusive approach to the people whose experiences she highlights. She places the stories of everyday Americans, especially working-class families, on an equal footing with those of celebrities, politicians, and other prominent figures, and has taken significant financial and, sometimes, personal risks to do so. Kopple’s openly subjective style reflects her belief that authoritative knowledge is unrealistic, and it is therefore more truthful to reveal tensions between straightforward recording and personal sympathies. “We’re not doing news. We don’t have to be objective. We’re going to make the kind of film…that we feel passionate about,” she has said.2

Harlan County U.S.A. in China
As China’s factories, mines, and other businesses withhold wages and benefits, institute layoffs, or shutter completely, workers are protesting and striking. This is particularly perilous in a country without enshrined rights of free speech or protest. Despite the decades and distance separating the striking miners in Harlan County U.S.A. from these 21st-century Chinese laborers, some Chinese labor organizers have turned to the film to understand the tactics of the American miners and determine how to apply them to their own situation.