Barbara Kopple by Roland Legiardi-Laura

Roland Legiardi-Laura invokes documentarian Barbara Kopple’s modesty as they discuss the extreme hardships and tensions involved in making Oscar-winning films such as American Dream and Harlan County, U.S.A.

BOMB 38 Winter 1992
038 Winter 1992
Barbara Kopple 01

Barbara Kopple. © 1992 Susan Shacter. Hair and make-up by Joe J. Simon from Timothy Priano.

In 1977, Barbara Kopple released Harlan County, U.S.A., a powerful and intimate documentary chronicling the struggle of 180 coal mining families to win a union contract. Besides winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary, it became only the second documentary film in American history to be placed on our national registry of film treasures. The first was Nanook of the North by Robert Flaherty. In 1991, American Dream, Kopple’s intense study of union dynamics during the Hormel Meat Packer’s strike, won her a second Oscar for best documentary. She is the first woman to win two Oscars in this category. Barbara and I first met in 1988 at the Independent Features Project. About a month ago, we sat down at her kitchen table to a meal of homemade chicken curry. Her son Nicholas finished his homework while we talked about her films.

Roland Legiardi Laura What is the American dream? What’s in the dream? I think the quest for the American dream is at the heart of all your filmmaking.

Barbara Kopple For most Americans it’s upward mobility, having a decent job, a decent family life, stability. All the things that we Americans, as children, had been promised: equality, decent education, a safe place to live.

RLL And for you, the dream is?

BK My American dream gets translated through my work, which celebrates my heroes, the people I care about, the American workers. My American dream is to be able to live and immerse myself in a community with these people and then to come back and show that to other people: to try to keep the dream alive.

RLL To be involved with the working people of this country; to be in their presence…

BK To be able to record first-hand their story as told by them.

RLL How did you get this way, Barbara? That’s a noble quest. Manual labor is looked upon now as a punishment, not as an ennobling experience. We shy away from what we see as the drudgery, the pain and the humiliation of work.

BK Much of the work is drudgery, pain and humiliation, but millions of people experience this each day as part of their lives. I am not trying to romanticize it, but to show it as it is. And the people as they are.

RLL Your work is not driven by liberal guilt. It seems to come from a deep appreciation of the processes of the working person.

BK It started with my grandparents who lived in Peekskill, New York. In 1949, there were the Peekskill riots and a fellow named Paul Robeson came to sing. It was a period of racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Communism. This one particular summer was pretty hot and there was a concert in which Paul Robeson was not allowed to sing. My grandparents were outraged and wrote a letter to The Peekskill Star, the local paper that helped to promulgate the riots, saying even if people didn’t believe in his politics, he still had a right to sing. That story was told to me throughout my life.

My uncle was also influential in my life. He was a school teacher for a while and wrote a book, Hickory Stick, that was then stolen from him and became Blackboard Jungle. He also wrote the theater piece that became Casablanca.

RLL Everyone Comes To Rick’s Cafe?

BK Everyone comes to Rick’s. I grew up in a middle-class atmosphere: everything was devoted to the family, education and kids. My parents gave me a sense of security, a sense that I could do things — that let me be brave enough to go outside of where I’m from.

RLL You lived with the miners in Harlan County, Kentucky, for a year and a half in order to shoot Harlan County.

BK Thirteen months. And I lived in the coal fields for three years.

RLL That’s an extraordinary experience for an middle class girl from Peekskill, New York.

BK I didn’t grow up in Peekskill. My mother did and my grandparents did.

RLL Where did you grow up?

BK Scarsdale.

RLL Scarsdale! Ah, the truth comes out. It’s even more of an extraordinary experience for a Scarsdale girl to go live in the coal fields.

BK Not really. The ’60s were an impetus too, it was a time when people felt like they could make a difference, that they were empowered and would see change in their lives.

RLL Did you study film when you were at school?

BK No, political science and psychology.

RLL Seems to be a good basic background for a documentary filmmaker. To watch American Dream and Harlan County back to back is an interesting experience.

BK Why? What does it do?

RLL What I see is your formal approach to filmmaking. You’re in many ways, a classic documentary filmmaker. But what’s extraordinary is that the films work because they’re dramatic pieces. They’re stories that are deftly woven together the way one would structure any good feature fiction film. You find a story and you create the tension…

BK I don’t create the tension.

RLL There’s an infinite number of events attached to either of these films. You choose to film in a way that creates, and tells a story—it’s not just the recording of events.

BK I lived in the area for a long time. I’m a very intimate filmmaker. I like to be able to get underneath what people think.

RLL Intimate, how?

BK You have to gain their trust, you have to immerse yourself in the community. The people I’m filming realize that I’m not just running in to catch a story and running out but that I care about their struggle.

RLL In your films, the reward is clear. The characters are drawn better than any characters you see in feature films. And better than the people you see in most documentaries since they are drawn over a period of time.

BK Except you don’t get to do very many of these kinds of films. It’s a slow, patient, persevering process.

RLL It’s a painful experience. Documentaries are masochism.

BK Right.

RLL When American Dream showed at the N.Y. Film Festival, the portrait that was drawn could be interpreted as less than positive concerning the state of affairs in American labor today.

BK The major test for me was bringing the film back to Austin, Minnesota. I didn’t know what people would think. It was on Memorial Day weekend. It was extremely hot. We showed it in the school auditorium, where a lot of the meetings took place during the filming. And everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong—the projectionist didn’t have any double-keyed reels so we had to rewind with a pencil. He and I were sweating, the place was filled with people stamping their feet on the floor: the whole place resounded. We were dying up there, right? The film finally started and there wasn’t a sound, not a sound. I was scared, occasionally, people would boo or cough. And at the end, as the credits began to roll, 1500 people stood up and clapped.

RLL Gave you a standing O, huh?

BK Gave themselves a standing O. And what they said to me was, this is going to start the healing process, and you captured how it was. As for the labor movement, I didn’t create what happened. These are very hard times but the hope has to be in the people. Just because you lose a battle doesn’t mean you lose the war. Right after Austin, came the Pittston Coal Company, which I filmed for Out of Darkness. They had all the odds going against them. But they had such a terrific issue, the elimination of health care for the pensioned retirees. Richard Trumpka, the President of the United Mine Workers, went against all the rules. The court said, “We are going to fine you $500,000 a day if you stay on the picket line.” And he said, “Take our treasury. We don’t care. We are staying on the picket line and we’re going to win.” And they did. So, the pendulum swings both ways. American Dream shows respect for the labor movement because it’s honest. It talks about very, very hard issues: do you cross the picket line to get your job back or do you stay out for the things that you believe in? The only way any movement learns is to look at itself in a critical way. It’s not the union’s fault that this is happening—there are much larger economic issues, real systemic problems. American Dreamisn’t bad for the labor movement, it shows the terrible turmoil of the ’80s. It obviously loves the workers and loves the people.

RLL What is your theory of filmmaking? There’s no personal narrative in your work although the film’s personal since you’re there.

BK They’re personal about the people. What I would call a really good documentary is one in which you never feel the presence of the camera or the filmmaker. It’s like peeking under a blanket where you’re not supposed to look and seeing real life and real people unfold. Sometimes they respond to change with great resiliency, courage and dignity; and you’re looking in on it when it happens. To me, that’s what a great scene would be. Where the people care more about the struggle that they’re going through, the actual fight, the situation, than the event of filming so that they forget about us, as filmmakers.

RLL Why is it important that they forget?

BK Because then they’re taking over. The filmmaker changes the presence but if the real elements of their life can take over then that’s doing something. There are lots of scenes in Harlan County where that happened, one particular scene was a fight among the women. It was during a real low morale time in the strike, people were hurling accusations at each other, “You’re sleeping with my husband,” “You’re an alcoholic.” One woman, who’s emotionally charged by all of it, slams her hand down on the table and says, “Listen, I don’t care who sleeps with whose man or who drinks what: I’m not after a man, I’m after a contract. I’m raising all these kids up.” And then she got into how her husband was down with black lung. Those are the moments that come from the core, that come from the soul, and when they can be captured, they are reality.

RLL Do you think your subjects can ever forget your presence, totally?

BK Yes. When the three guys who are deciding to pass or not to pass the picket line in American Dream, broke down, they were dealing with real life decisions affecting what they believed in. I could’ve been there, I could not have been there. It still would have happened. They certainly didn’t break down because I was there. But things do and don’t happen because I’m there. In Harlan County, we were always on the picket line, and maybe somebody would have been killed if we hadn’t been there, we were a safety net, nobody wanted to commit murder in living color.

RLL Or even in black and white.

BK Yes, you can have an influence and you can change things. The fact that we were there was good for their morale. Particularly in Harlan County, because no one else was down there. Nobody cared. Who knows what would have happened. In a way, our presence made it a speck more dignified than it might have been.

RLL Clearly, for you, it works to be able to get down into a situation and become invisible: a type of astral projection with your crew connected by a thin thread of celluloid.

BK Well, as far as crew, I generally work with only one other person. I do the sound. I work with a camera person and sometimes an assistant camera person.

RLL That allows you to be as discreet as possible.

BK Right. And small and not cumbersome when we’re filming. We don’t become a show in ourselves. When Lois, in Harlan County, pulls the gun out of her dress and says, “Who’s going to be on the picket line? So, Barbara, are you going to be on the picket line?”

“Yeah, of course I’m going to be there, Lois, but you’re not supposed to ask me. I’m filming this.” They think that you belong there, that you’re a person who just wears headphones and carries a microphone. That’s your identity.

RLL Clearly, a big problem of being a documentary filmmaker is that one has to take sides. Even though you can be fair, you have to take sides.

BK I always take the side of the workers.

RLL But you’re able to present the other side. The Hormel executive is allowed to say his piece and he’s presented in a way that’s fair and objective.

BK It’s not a matter of fair and objective. If you’re trying to give a picture of what’s happening, you have to get every side of the story to be well-rounded. That’s the only way people are going to understand the dynamics, the complexities and the layers within the film. Otherwise, you’re making a propaganda film for the already committed and you’re not going to reach out to the masses. I try very hard for my documentaries to show in theaters because I believe that documentaries are movies and that general audiences should be able to see themselves on a screen. In a sense, I’m capturing a moment in our history. You don’t have to just see Terminator II, you can go and see something else for a change. Documentaries seem to have done very well: Roger and MeThin Blue Line. It’s a time of wanting to be grounded in basic human values.

RLL The current debate in documentary is about its form.

BK I’m not a traditionalist. I don’t believe there’s only one way to do a work. I’m more radical or open in my approach. Anything goes and you should support people who are trying to use new and innovative forms. It’s the chemistry of how you relate to people or ideas. My style of filmmaking is very much to let the people speak. I’m filming them because you haven’t heard these people. And what they have to say is very important—as important as anyone, even President Bush.

Barbara Kopple 02

Jeannie Bambrick being arrested. From American Dream. © 1991 Prestige Films.

RLL This type of filmmaking, where you have to become one with your subject and live with them isn’t cheap. How do you do it? What happens to you?

BK I drink chocolate water. As creative as you are in your filmmaking, that’s how creative you have to be in your fundraising. For example, some of the financing for American Dream came from Catholic institutions. There was a pastoral letter in which there was a section on the economic crisis, plant closings and wage concessions. What we were doing fit right in. So we were able to find a lot of Catholic organizations who supported the film in a big way. You always have to keep your eyes open to see who else is interested in the same issue.

RLL Is having won Academy Awards helpful? Obviously it doesn’t hurt, but if you won Best Actress or Best Actor, you’d get a lot of offers the next day.

BK It helps and it doesn’t help. You can get in to see anybody. It doesn’t help, because you still need funding from foundations, and the people who sit on the panels say, all too often, “Barbara Kopple won an Academy Award, she doesn’t need our money. Let’s give it to somebody else.” And that’s just untrue. I need it so badly, and it’s very painful when your own community doesn’t support your work because they think you can get it elsewhere. In this kind of filmmaking, you’re always on the edge, teetering over a cliff. And only personal will or perseverance keeps you from falling into the canyon. Yeah, you can make some tough and difficult choices. American Dream was not an easy film to make. One, because of the complexities, and two, because the weather conditions were extremely harsh, 60 below with the windchill factor. You get burnt out. Once, when I had been up since three in the morning and had been out ‘til twelve noon, I had a chance to get warm because the camera battery started freezing up. So we went in to warm the battery and my office called and said, Barbara, you have $275 left in the bank, there isn’t any more money coming from anywhere, we can’t buy any more film, we can’t pay the rent, we can’t do anything. What are you going to do about it?” And I said, “What am I going to do about it? I can’t even get warm!”(laughter) I’m dead tired…I can hardly think of what to do for my next shot…So that’s what I’m thinking about, and now I have to think about fundraising, too? So I’m pacing around the Union Hall and suddenly the phone rings again and somebody says, “Barbara, it’s your office,” and I said, “No, no, no, no, I know what it’s about, I don’t need to talk to them.” And they said, “Come on, Barbara, they’re on the phone.” So I get on the phone, and we’d just gotten a $25,000 grant from Bruce Springsteen. I burst into tears, probably more from exhaustion and relief than from anything else. Everyone in the office picked up phones just to listen to me crying.

Times are so bad now for the arts, and documentaries in particular. You know, it’s a tough struggle. But those things don’t matter in a way, because the rich things are what you’re able to film and bring back. Nobody can ever erase that. It’s there for the long term. That’s what propels me to continue. Showing Harlan County in Eastern Kentucky was incredible. It was absolutely packed. This guy who was dying of black lung was wheeled in on his hospital bed. The reaction was a lot different than that of American Dream when it went up on the screen, people relived the strike: they screamed at the strikebreakers, gasped at things that happened to them and laughed at funny things they said. It was phenomenal. The tension was coming off the walls.

RLL How was this a very different response? They were both strikes that were brutally violent.

BK Coal miners have a different heritage and history than the meatpackers of Austin. The people of Austin, Minnesota, always have had a better life economically. They lived in a lily-white, white-bread community. They had their houses and their patch of land where they grew food. They went on camping or fishing trips every two weeks in the summertime and got paid fairly well. So, for them to have made this wage concession meant giving up a comfortable, middle-class existence. The people of eastern Kentucky live in homes where there’s no hot water and no toilets, they use outhouses. Social status is a brand new truck parked outside their dilapidated house. Most of them don’t get their own toothbrushes until age 16. They get paid poverty wages and they work in an industry that’s the most dangerous in the country. That’s where they’re similar, meat-packing is the second most dangerous industry in the country. In American Dream, the meatpackers lost—brother watched brother cross the picket line. They are a small community of 10,000, with a very patriarchal company where their grandfathers and their fathers worked, like the coal miners. They had roots and they felt a great sense of betrayal when the company did this to them. So there was a hushed silence, both communities have similarities and differences. Both communities are struggling for decent pay and a quality life.

RLL They ate the pain.

BK There it is and we have to heal it. And the people in Harlan County felt “We did it! We won, we got the union in. The cost of life: a man, a coal miner, was killed by the company, but we beat them. They said we couldn’t do it but we did it!”

RLL Which was the harder film for you to make?

BK Oh, American Dream because things weren’t black and white, things were gray. Harlan County was black and white. Which side are you on?—real simple. But times have changed. In American Dream I had a responsibility to tell the truth and to look as deeply as I could into the different lines of thought so that people on the outside could understand the inner mechanisms: what makes people suffering great economic crisis, making tough life-affecting choices, act? They were all good people with different strategies. And that’s where the films differ from each other. During American Dream, I was feeling, that they shouldn’t have had to go through this, this shouldn’t have been happening. If this is what’s replacing what we had before, what does this mean?

RLL “What we had before” meaning?

BK A stable economic situation. For people who are meat packers, to have to struggle for their very survival and not be able to make a living, what’s happening to the work force of this country?

RLL But the times are different.

BK It’s a ripping up of communities, of social values, of morals. It’s people looking at the individual more than the group, of people competing with each other in different ways. In Harlan County everyone pulled together because everybody was working toward the same end.

RLL But still, it’s not as if the union movement was coming out of a period of naivete.

BK American Dream, is not as centralized as Harlan County. Harlan County was the Yablonsky murders, Miners for Democracy, Black Lung, Wildcat strikes and music, but the focus was Harlan County. Although a lot of American Dream takes place in Austin, the character of Lewie Anderson, brings in the larger picture—what’s happening at all the other large meat packing plants. I got into stories that I couldn’t use—a place called Worthington, Minnesota, where a plant closed and people thought it was their fault, blamed themselves although they were the victims. Another place where people were turning out such a high production that they were getting physically mangled by knives and saws, losing fingers and hands. And this plant still voted against the union because their company scared them. These Iowa farmboys were making $6.50 an hour, and that was more than they had ever made. It wasn’t just Austin, Minnesota. I landed in Austin, Minnesota.

RLL What’s important is that you are able to tell the story in both a larger and a smaller sense. In the micro sense of the characters and the macro sense of the themes. You have big themes. And yet, you don’t work from a script. You can’t write the script…

BK Right, real life takes over.

RLL But you still create a story. How do you move, develop, how do you know where to go in the narrative?

BK You have to have your little street-smart sensors going: do a lot of research, figure out what your story is and struggle as hard as you can to stay one step ahead of everyone else, anticipate what you think might happen. And if you’re wrong, be able to go with whatever does happen. It’s a matter of being finely tuned.

RLL And always have a gun.

BK Right. (laughter) Have gun, will travel.

RLL You’ve just got to be ready to follow the story.

BK To be able to listen, to really hear what the people are saying. When the guys who broke down and cried about finally going across the picket line—I just figured these guys must be going through agony. What are they feeling, what are they doing?—I stopped by because I was thinking about them and there they were. It wasn’t set up, it was just there. The character, Lewie Anderson, who is the Vice President of the meat packing division and the National Union, went from place to place, trying to stick his fingers in all the different dikes as the water was rushing out. Employers were slashing wages, closing the plants. That scene of the meeting where guys from the local, ask Lewie, “What are we going to tell our guys, let’s go out on strike?” And he bangs his fist on the table, throws over some chairs, and explodes from exhaustion and frustration, “I can’t be the guy on the white horse. I didn’t make these things happen. It’s not my fault.” It is him breaking apart.

RLL It’s amazing to see that on film, to catch it on film. It’s classic Kopple, if we can say that.

BK It’s almost a decade of work.

RLL And what’s next?

BK A film with John Newman, who has just written a book called, JFK and Vietnam. We’d like to make it into a three-part series. We’ll see. I’m also thinking about doing a fiction film on love and relationships. But who knows? This is my time to take it easy and think and reflect about what I want to do and be, where I’ve been.

RLL Well, Barbara Kopple, most revered of American documentary filmmakers…

BK Give me a break.

Roland Legiardi-Laura is a documentary filmmaker. He is currently producing a documentary about education in American entitled, Teacher.

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Originally published in

BOMB 38, Winter 1992

Featuring interviews with Edward Albee, Caryl Phillips by Graham Swift, Barbara Kopple, Mike Kelley, Colm Tóibín, Valerie Jaudon, Robbie Robertson, Brigitte Rouan, Nicole Burdette, Clutter, Todd Ayoung, Exene Cervenka, and Carolyn See.

Read the issue
038 Winter 1992