Late last year, I was invited to Lincoln Center in New York City to attend the premiere of a restored edition of the 1976 film “Harlan County, USA.” The original film print had begun to deteriorate, and an organization called the Women’s Film Preservation Fund had taken on the job of saving this American classic.
“Harlan County” won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1977, but it had been years since the film was shown on the big screen. Barbara Kopple, the director and producer, joined other members of the original film crew for a panel discussion. The evening culminated in a performance by one of Appalachia’s living treasures, Hazel Dickens, who led the audience in singing “They Can Never Keep Us Down,” a song she wrote that ends the film.
One of America’s landmark films, “Harlan County” follows the struggle of eastern Kentucky coal miners at the Brookside Mine in their fight to join the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Kopple lived in the coalfields for over a year and powerfully captured the bitter, violent, and ultimately successful thirteen-month strike by the miners, as well as the poverty and poignancy of life in the coal camps.
Three decades later, the film is experiencing a renaissance. It was screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and a new distributor plans to show the film in theaters and release it on DVD. I talked to Barbara Kopple about the revival of the film and the lessons it offers the coalfields today.
Hitt: Can you tell me how you got interested in the coalfields and the story of the miners in Harlan County?
Kopple: I was young and just beginning to work in film. I was also interested in being an activist and a storyteller. I read in the paper about the Miners for Democracy and their leader, Jock Yablonsky, who was murdered along with his wife and daughter during the struggle to reform the corrupt leadership of the UMWA. I was able to raise $12,000, and off I went to the coalfields.
I started filming Arnold Miller and others, who were rank and file miners vying to take over the UMWA and make it a democratic union. And then the miners in Harlan County went on strike to fight for their right to unionize. I wanted to stay and film that, and also to find out if Arnold Miller would get into office and keep his promise to make sure these workers got a union, which he did.
Hitt: Appalachians can sometimes be wary of outsiders. How were you greeted when you arrived in the coalfields, and how did you earn people’s trust?
Kopple: We got to eastern Kentucky late in the evening, and the UMWA organizers told us to go down to the Brookside picket lines early the next morning. So we did, just as the women were starting to lay down in the road to stop cars from crossing the picket line.
They were being hauled off to jail, and when we tried to talk to them they didn’t know who we were and thought maybe we were working for the company. So they would give us phony names, like Martha Washington and Florence Nightingale. But they told us they were going to be on the picket line the next day and said that we should come down.
The next morning as we were driving down the hill it was wet and slippery, and our car went off the road. So we just left the car behind, picked up all our equipment, and walked the rest of the way to the picket line. At that moment, they started trusting us. They opened their hearts and their homes, and took care of us and protected us.
Hitt: Watching the movie, you see miners being threatened, shot at, attacked, and one miner is killed. I know that, in filming their story, you were in danger yourself. Can you tell me more about that?
Kopple: Yes, we were in danger. We were filming everything that happened, and we were almost always the only camera crew there. So if they got rid of us, perhaps nobody would ever know what was happening on that picket line.
Very early one morning, gun thugs drove up to the picket line and started shooting semi-automatic carbines with tracer bullets. We walked up to them as they were crossing the bridge, and they tried to disarm us of our equipment. But of course we kept going, and the next thing I knew I was being kicked and I was swinging my microphone trying to get them off of me.
I was told later by one of the organizers near the end of the strike that a hit had been put on me. I said, “Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” They answered, “Because then you would have left.” I told them that I wouldn’t have. They said, “Don’t worry. We were protecting you.”
Hitt: How did the people in Harlan County react when the film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature?
Kopple: I called up Harlan County right after the awards ceremony and they started screaming, “We won an Academy Award! We won an Academy Award!” They were so happy. They were just thrilled.
Hitt: Many filmmakers and film critics have called “Harlan County” one of the most powerful documentaries ever made. How do you think it changed the situation in the coalfields?
Kopple: The film was shown before Congress for the black lung legislation, and it gave decision mak-ers a real sense of the experience of the coal miners. I think films play a very important role in being able to truly communicate who people are, what they care about, and what they go through. The Black Lung Association used it to help raise money and awareness. They took the film on tour all over the coalfields. For the people of eastern Kentucky, it meant so much to know that so many people really cared about their struggle.
Hitt: I’m also interested in how your experiences making film changed you.
Kopple: My experiences making the film changed me incredibly. I understood what life and death was all about. I was trusted and brought into the homes of people who I adore, and who I still talk to. It was the most important personal experience I’ve ever had. It also sharpened my determination to continue in my profession as a filmmaker. And it’s more than a profession. It’s a lifelong quest to be able to tell stories about people who you respect, and who are your heroes.
Hitt: So you still keep up with the folks from Harlan County?
Kopple: Yes I do. Unfortunately Lois Scott, one of the most memorable women in the film, passed away in June. A lot of people in the film have passed away.
Hitt: But there are new people coming up behind them.
Kopple: Yes, it’s always about the next generation really working and fighting for human rights, for basic human rights for coal miners.
Hitt: Life in the coalfields is still hard today. Mountaintop removal is destroying communities, the coal industry has been increasingly mechanized, there are fewer jobs, and the large coal companies have been buying up the smaller union mines and breaking the unions. What are your thoughts on the situation in the coalfields today?
Kopple: Unfortunately, it’s not different than when I started. The struggles are the same, except that the UMWA only has 25,000 members. When I was making this film I think we had 150,000 or 175,000. So you see what’s happened to the union movement for coal miners.
For coal miners, having a union is still the most important thing, just as it was in the 1930s, the 1950s, and the 1970s. People are still dying in the coal mines, strip mining is still going on, homes are being flooded, and they need an organization that protects them.
When we showed this film at the Sundance Film Festival in January, some coal miners came in from Salt Lake City, Utah. Right after the film, one of the miners was talking about what he was going through and he just burst into tears, this big burly man, and all these people in the audience burst into tears with him. Their story is a little bit different, but they’re still fighting to have a union. They’re still fighting for decent wages. I’m afraid things haven’t changed.
Hitt: Do you think your film and your experiences in Harlan County have a lesson for people in the coalfields who are facing issues like mountaintop removal today?
Kopple: If I could say just one thing, it’s to persevere and to keep fighting for what you know is right. Stand up, and when you do a lot of other people will stand up with you. Don’t be afraid to talk about the issues and to really fight, like the coal miners in eastern Kentucky. It may have some severe consequences, but in the end it’s worth it.
Hitt: Clearly the message of “Harlan County” is still very relevant today. What is it like to see the film experience a renaissance three decades later?
Kopple: It’s amazing. I couldn’t think of anything more wonderful to happen to this film, because these people’s stories need to live on. I hope people who see the film, and who are afraid to do something in their lives, will stand up and say, “If they can do it, so can I.”
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