Saturday, June 21, 2008

Harlan County, U.S.A.

Harlan County, U.S.A. (Barbara Kopple, 1976) [10]

Harlan County, U.S.A. is unequivocally one of the best documentaries I have ever seen, and in this current age of egotistical partisanism in political documentaries, it's stands so much above in terms of intelligence and telling its story. That isn't meant to say the film has no political agenda, Kopple and company clearly side with the miners and their struggle but she constructs a film without hyperventilating bluster by realizing these are real people and treating them and their story with respect and a supreme understanding of their plight.

What makes the film is that story is highly compelling. In 1973, workers at a coal mine in Harlan County, Kentucky elected to join the United Mine Workers of America. The company that owned the mine refused to sign the union contract and as a result, the miners went on strike. This led to a series of picket lines, scabs, intimidation of the striking miners by company hired "gun thugs", and all the eroding passion and determination that a year plus strike can have on the miners and their families. Kopple recognizes right away the it's the people that propel this narrative and her sympathy with the miners and their families allow her insight into meetings, the picket lines themselves, and the true feelings of the families being effected. This obvious sympathy made her a target by the strikebreakers, as the famous scene of Basil Collins, the head strikebreaker, pointing a gun at Kopple and her camera crew and their subsequent beating at the hands of some scabs. The film shows numerous moments like this between the striking miners and the scabs, with the threat of violence ready to break out at any moment. The film smartly goes these skirmishes and its best moments are the ones capturing behind the scenes moments. The film has been notable for capturing the role of women in the strike, the wives, daughters, and mothers of the miners who recognize that a better future for their men will also mean improvements for their lives, as exemplified by the fact that the company owned housing they occupy has no indoor plumbing and running water. These women are the backbone of the film, showing as much courage and emotion as the men but also becoming a perfect embodiment of the women's lib movement that was exploding in the mid 70s. It is they who give the film emotion and empathy, the true soul of the film. When the moment comes when a striking mine worker is killed by a scab, it shows this. It's one of the most emotionally potent moments I have ever seen in cinema.

All the praise the film has gotten over the years is worth it. It's not a film about political ideology, even though it has a clear political point of view. The history of the union struggle in the mines as well as the fantastic union songs clearly show Kopple's allegiance. The film goes beyond a political argument into a social one, showing people struggling to find some decency and not be exploited. That should not be a disputed point.

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