Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 30 July 1946. Education: Graduated from Northeastern University with degree in psychology. Career: Assisted documentary filmmakers as an editor, sound recordist, and camerawoman; spent four years in coal fields of Harlan County, Kentucky, recording struggles of unionized miners for documentary Harlan County, U.S.A. , 1972–76. Awards: Critic's Choice Award, Cannes Film Festival, 1972, for Winter Soldier; Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary, designation by Congress as American Film Classic in National Film Registry, Blue Ribbon, Grierson Award, and Emily Award at the American Film Festival, all 1977, all for Harlan County, U.S.A.; Christopher Award, 1977; Mademoiselle Award, 1977; National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, 1970s and 1980s; Blue Ribbon, American Film and Video Festival, 1990, for Out of Darkness; Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary, Grand Jury Prize, Audience Award, and Filmmaker's Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival, Golden Gate
Winter Soldier (co-d)
Harlan County, U.S.A. (+ sound, pr)
No Nukes (co-d)
Keeping On (+ exec pr)
Civil Rights: The Struggle Continues (+ pr)
Out of Darkness (co-d)
American Dream (+ sound, co-pr)
Beyond JFK: The Question of Conspiracy (co-d); Locked Out: Ravenswood
Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson (+ pr)
Century of Women (segment d)
Prisoners of Hope (co-d)
Woodstock '94 (+ pr); Wild Man Blues
A Conversation with Gregory Peck
Richard III (pr, sound, ed)
Hurricane Irene (pr)
Nails (segment pr)
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Maslin, J., "Rich Vein," in Newsweek , 1 November 1976.
"Cinema 5's Probable Harlan County Deal," in Variety , 15 Decem-ber 1976.
Biskind, Peter, " Harlan County, U.S.A.: The Miners' Struggle," in Jump Cut , no. 14, 1977.
Kleinhans, Chuck, "Barbara Kopple Interview," in Jump Cut , no. 14, 1977.
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Jones, E. S., " Harlan County U.S.A. ," in Film News , Summer 1977.
Aghed, J., "Entretien avec Barbara Kopple," in Positif , Octo-ber 1977.
Bovier-Lapierre, E., " Harlan County, U.S.A. ," in Cinématographe , October 1977.
Martin, M., "Entretien avec Barbara Kopple," in Ecran , 15 Octo-ber 1977.
Le Peron, S., and L. Skorecki, "Entretien avec Barbara Kopple," in Cahiers du Cinéma , November 1977.
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Heijs, J., " Harlan County, U.S.A. ," in Skrien , May 1978.
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Barbara Kopple got her start in film working for Albert and David Maysles. In order to make films, she decided it was necessary to learn all aspects of their production. At the Maysles' studio, she became familiar with the craft—from getting coffee to reconstituting trims, no job was trivialized. She became an assistant editor for the Maysles and began working as editor and sound recordist for other producers.
After gaining enough experience and confidence, Kopple decided it was time to direct her own films. Her crews consisted of a camera operator and sound recordist, of which she was the sound recordist. As with most documentaries, such a small crew was an economic necessity, but it also enhanced the filmmaker's intimacy with the subject. According to Kopple, recording sound brought her "deeper into what was happening"; she was "hearing" and participating in the filmic process on multiple levels. As a technician, interviewer, and director, she is both observer and participant. In supervising post-production she becomes the storyteller.
Most of Kopple's independent films require her constant attention to fundraising. Winning the Academy Award for Best Feature-length Documentary for Harlan County, U.S.A. did not ensure funds for another project. While shooting American Dream , rather than process film, she bought freezers to store the exposed rolls until money could be raised for lab expenses. Kopple thinks "small crews are great, but sometimes it's better to have money and hire a sound recordist."
Kopple was influenced by the Maysles brothers and D. A. Pennebaker, exponents of Direct Cinema. Her method of filmmaking, though owing much to her predecessors, is very much a result of form following content. Though her style may differ slightly from film to film because of the organic strategy she employs for each story, there is an overriding consistency to her work. She gives those not normally heard a voice—the audience of most films are her subjects. Her documentaries have become emblematic of social change films.
Most of Kopple's films have no simple beginning—we enter a story that has already begun. The audience may know the outcome, yet we are engaged in the suspense of how we arrived at that point. Her films examine the antecedents of power relationships, how people are affected, respond, and make sense of their own actions and those of others. Though the chronology of a film may shift through history, intercutting past events with the contemporary, we experience the action in the present tense. Her endings are never clean, sometimes with story updates occurring under the end credits. Kopple's films create a discourse that cuts through historical time in an attempt to understand where we are today.
Kopple's films create such intimacy of identity that we feel sure she lived the experience. However, Harlan County, U.S.A. took only thirteen months to make. After reading about the death of Joseph Yablonski, his wife, and daughter, and the formation of Miners for Democracy, she decided to make the film and secured a $10,000 loan from Tom Brandon. The film develops small stories to contextualize a larger narrative.
The Consolidation Coal Mannington Mine Disaster of 1968, the Yablonski family murder in 1970, and the union election places the Harlan strike in a national relationship. History is seen as a growing organism and montage moves the discourse through time. John L. Lewis is cut against Carl Horn, president of Duke Power, as though they were engaged in debate. Yet the film is faithful to and references the chronology of the Harlan strike.
Kopple uses music to remind the audience of our folk storytelling tradition. In geographically isolated regions such as Harlan, music has been a way of sharing experience, creating a unifying identity. In the film music functions to evoke cultural memory and meaning. Though we may be thousands of miles from Harlan, we share a common heritage of labor struggle. The voice of the film is the voice of many. There is no one hero, but a common chorus of purpose uniting gender and race. "Which Side Are You On" functions as Harlan County, U.S.A. 's theme song. The film is about choice. Kopple is asked by Duke Power's thugs to identify herself; there is no question of her allegiance. Kopple thinks that being a woman may have contributed to the local police letting her film in jail. They did not consider her a threat. There is no question that the film threatened Duke Power; the camera is beaten. And the film is very much about violence: everyday life seems harsh, and the strike heightens the brutality. The audience must look at the conflict's viscera—pieces of lung and brains in the dirt—and ultimately the death of striker Lawrence Jones. The strike may be won, but it is a momentary victory. The struggle continues without end through the credits.
Kopple continues themes developed in Harlan County, U.S.A. in American Dream , but the story and issues have become more complicated. Again she films a strike, a labor crisis, and documents the crisis of labor. At issue is whether the union movement will be destroyed by Reaganism, or whether it will transform and once again play an active role in the American drama. The film follows Local P-9 of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union as the rank and file struggles with the International leadership and dissidents among its own membership, as well as labor's traditional antagonist, in this case Hormel and Company.
Again a strike is the motivating force for communality. But because labor is divided—brother pitted against brother— American Dream evokes the heartbreak of the Civil War. The labor movement has lost its innocence, yet Local P-9 seems naive. They lack an historical perspective to labor negotiations. When the strike is going well they are enthusiastic, but they succumb to moral self-righteousness when frustrated. Recognizing stasis in the International, they hire an outside labor consultant, Ray Rogers of "Corporate Campaign," whose strategy is to effect economic distress on Hormel, build solidarity with other locals, and make the strike "newsworthy." He packages the strike for television, but we are not sure which side of the camera he prefers to be on; as he seems to be playing a role from Norma Rae (Rogers was the organizer at J. P. Stevens). Authenticity becomes problematic.
As in Harlan County, U.S.A. , there is no doubt that Kopple's camera is on the side of labor. However, in American Dream the camera re-positions itself to show the conflicting points-of-view within the labor movement. The camera is with Local P-9 leader Jim Guyette, then with Lewie Anderson, director of the International Union's Meatpacking Division. It is in a car with dissidents as they defy the Local and go back to work. But the camera does not cross the picket line with them; it watches the dissidents go through the gate from the vantage point of the strikers.
In American Dream , Kopple utilizes various documentary styles. Direct Cinema techniques are combined with conventional sit-down interviews and narration. The voice of the film is that of labor, but unlike Harlan County, U.S.A. , American Dream employs narration. Guyette and Anderson provide commentary for their own stories. And Kopple personally announces voice-over information necessary to move the story forward. As the film proceeds to its end, we are aware of a distance and dislocation of voice and character not experienced in Harlan County, U.S.A. The grand narrative of American labor is fractured, and we wonder if the Dream can ever be reconstructed. The film ends with an American Graffiti -style montage of character updates. But it is the 1980s, and although there may be personal change, one story remains the same: company profits continue to grow while workers are paid less.
Kopple thinks of herself as a filmmaker of traditional dramas, examining how people behave in moments of crisis and change. Her films question the construct of the "American Dream" and the price we pay in its attainment; how this "Dream" influences and informs our collective and individual identity and what we value; and how we are equipped to deal with and interpret issues of justice and change.