March 14, 2018

Oscar-Winning Documentarian Barbara Kopple on Establishing Trust and Filming Life-or-Death Situations

Harlan County USA
With over 40 directing and producing credits and two Oscars, Barbara Kopple has seen it all and lived to tell the tales. And she's got plenty.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Barbara Kopple risked her life for her 1976 Academy Award-winning documentary feature, Harlan County USA. While shooting the documentary, about a 1974 coal miners' strike in Harlan County, Kentucky, Kopple and her team found themselves literally in the crosshairs. The director and her crew were shot at while chronicling the miners' sometimes violent struggle against strikebreakers, the local police, and "thugs" hired by the coal company. Not only did they survive, they captured the incident on film. Harlan County USA is regularly included in lists of “The Best Documentaries of All Time” and in 1991, it was named to the National Film Registry by the Librarian of Congress and designated an American Film Classic.

Since then, Kopple has made documentaries about an enormous range of topics including Woody Allen’s New Orleans-style jazz band (Wild Man Blues), the Hemingway family’s history of mental illness (Running from Crazy), the YouTube star Gigi Gorgeous (This is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous), and a workers' strike at a Hormel meatpacking plant (American Dream), which earned Kopple her second Academy Award. She has also directed a number of TV movies and series, including episodes of Homicide: Life on the Street, Oz and American Masters. In addition to her two Oscars, Kopple also earned several Emmy nominations, three DGA Awards, an IDA Career Achievement Award and a Sundance Grand Jury Prize.

Kopple's films show tremendous respect for their subjects—whether they’re working class Americans fighting for their rights or celebrities grappling with issues of fame and misfortune. She manages to gain incredible access into her subjects’ lives and doesn’t flinch from difficult material.

Though Harlan County USA was her first film, Kopple had already amassed significant documentary experience prior to that directing debut, having worked on a number of Maysles brothers' documentaries, including Salesmen and Gimme Shelter.

As the 2018 Guest of Honor at the 11th annual Portland Oregon Women’s Film Festival (POW Film Fest), which ran from March 9-11 at Portland's Hollywood Theatre, Kopple shared anecdotes, insights and career highlights in a conversation with Portland State University professor Courtney Hermann between a double feature of Harlan County USA and Kopple’s recent Miss Sharon Jones! Below are some highlights from the discussion.

Miss Sharon Jones!
Barbara Kopple's documentary 'Miss Sharon Jones!'

Kopple sees parallels between the strikers in Harlan County and the political movements going on right now

Barbara Kopple: I think the women’s movement that we’re going through right now is so strong and so incredible and is just going to get stronger. The students’ movement in Florida over the shootings is just taking America by force and hopefully, will be able to do something about the loopholes and the NRA. Everywhere you look, and every time you see something that you don’t believe it, if you stand up for it, you talk about it, people will stand up for it too, and go along with you. I just feel in a fighting mood right now because we’ve got an awful lot to do.

She chose to stay and film Harlan County USA even though she was risking her life

Kopple: When I got to Harlan County, the [strike] organizers called me into a room alone and asked me what kind of gun I would like to have. I grew up in Scarsdale, New York, which is in Westchester County, where the last thing you’d ever think of is a gun. But I saw the little pretty pink gun so I picked that up and said, “I’ll take this,” not knowing how to use it or what it was.

I found out that the head “gun thug” [hired by the coal company] said that he was going to shoot me because he didn’t want us to film what was happening [with the miners’ strike]. Later, as they did shoot at us and they did shoot into the homes and we’d be on mattresses sleeping on the floor, we all got big guns then. Thank goodness we never had to use them. I had a .357 Magnum and also one of these really big high-powered rifles that you have to put on your chest and if you want to use exactly right, you’re all bruised for a long time. So we were fighting for our lives there.

"I saw the little pretty pink gun so I picked that up and said, 'I’ll take this,' not knowing how to use it or what it was."

Sometimes you have to go to extraordinary lengths to gain your subjects’ trust

Kopple: At the very beginning, the women [supporting the strike in Harlan County] didn’t trust us. They thought maybe the company brought us in and I sort of looked like a little hippie, with my little shawl and long hair. So they gave us fake names, like Florence Nightingale or Martha Washington or something like that and they said, “Okay, come down to the picket line at 5 o’clock tomorrow morning.”

It was a really rainy morning and there were no guard rails on this mountain and so another car came by us and our car flipped over. We were at the top of the mountain and nobody was hurt, thank Goodness. We just took all of our equipment and we walked all the way to the picket line. It’s a small town and so everybody knows what’s happening there. From that day, they trusted us and invited us into their homes and fed us and took care of us.

Gigi Gorgeous
Barbara Kopple's documentary 'This is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous'

Whether you’re telling stories about ordinary people or famous people, it’s all the same

Kopple: I think it’s pretty much the same for me—they’re people. I did a film called Running from Crazy, which is about the Hemingway family. I did it with the three daughters of Jack Hemingway, particularly Mariel Hemingway, and they talked about the seven suicides [in the family] and mental health and how she’s struggling in her life to do something different. They’re just people who have stories and family secrets or really huge tragedies in their lives.

"I just feel in a fighting mood right now because we’ve got an awful lot to do."

The Academy Award for Harlan County USA was an award for the people of Harlan County

Kopple: At the Oscars, they put all the documentarians together in a row and when our category came up, everybody crisscrossed hands and when the announcers said, "Harlan County USA," people shoved me up gently to go up there. I could just feel my heart somewhere in that room beating. I couldn’t believe it. I could also see [writer] Lillian Hellman. I had read all of her books and could not believe she was there.

Right after the Academy Awards, I called Harlan County and the people there and they said, “We won an award! We got an Academy Award!” It was the greatest thing for them and they started The Black Lung Association. A few days later, we brought the film down and they set it up in the multi-purpose center where they had all their meetings. People who were dying of black lung disease were rolled in on gurneys to see it. It was a really incredible experience that I’ll never forget.

Harlan County is, I think, my favorite film.

Harlan County USA
Barbara Kopple's Academy Award-winning documentary 'Harlan County USA'

It’s not easy finding funding for the projects you want to pursue, but sometimes you do them anyway

Kopple: The thing that you want to have happen is for someone to call you up and say, “How would you like to do this?” Because then you know they have a budget. Harlan County USA and American Dream, I had nothing, my lights would be turned off. I’d have to take baths with candlelight. It was not much fun.

I'm struggling with a film right now that I really want to do. We have no money for it whatsoever. It’s about refugees in Canada, two Syrian families and one Iraqi family, and the beautiful people who sponsored them and brought them there. I really wanted to do something through youth and young people.

In one Syrian family and one Iraqi family, they each had two boys and one Syrian family has another boy and they all got sponsored to go to camp in Northern Canada, three hours north of Toronto. It’s just a little film filled with hope, where they learn to enmesh themselves with Americans and Canadians and make friends and learn how to canoe and portage and swim and live together in sleeping bags with no running water and big hunkering mosquitos and bathe themselves in the lakes. It was absolutely an incredible experience.

"It never ends and it’s a big, wonderful family out there that you created."

Barbara Kopple Harlan County USA
Barbara Kopple during the filming of 'Harlan County USA'

Even after the filming ends, Kopple’s relationships with her documentary subjects continue

Kopple: You’re struggling with life and death or you’re struggling with them during some of the most intimate moments that these people have. They stay in your life. Sharon Jones and I got so close. My very first shoot with her was when she was having her head shaved [because of chemo] and was trying to decide whether to wear a wig or not. That’s so close. And [in The Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing], The Dixie Chicks, who were fighting to be able to say that they didn’t want that [Iraq] war and they didn’t respect George W. Bush for having that war, I was with them all the time, the friendship that they had and their whole sense of not betraying each other. They stay with you for life the whole time. The people from Harlan County, their grandchildren are calling me up and talking to me. It never ends and it’s a big, wonderful family out there that you created.      

Featured image: 'Harlan County USA'

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