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2010 IDA Career Achievement Award--The Magic of Being There: Barbara Kopple and the Subject-Filmmaker Relationship

By Sara Vizcarrondo

From Barbara Kopple's <em>Harlan County USA</em>

On the first day of her shoot at the Harlan County (Kentucky) coal miners strike, Barbara Kopple and her crew were met with distrust. The miners were under threat from a company whose recklessness with their safety had gone unchecked for years. On top of that, the company had gotten crafty, hiring scabs and bullies to menace the strikers and placing spies on the picket line. When Kopple and her crew introduced themselves, the strikers gave them fake names. "They said they were Martha Washington or Florence Nightingale, but they left a door open," Kopple recalls. " ‘If you come tomorrow at 4:00 a.m. and be on the picket line...' So we went up this mountain to find a place to stay, and we got up at 3:30."

The next morning, it was raining and the mountain road they travelled down lacked side rails; it's a dangerous situation if you know the mountain, but if you don't, anxieties are even higher. A car sped by the crew and Kopple's car toppled over into a ditch. "Everybody was fine," she says. "We got out of the car and dragged out the equipment. We knew we had to go to the picket line, so we walked. Harlan is small and news traveled and when everyone heard, they put their arms around us and embraced us and that was the start of something very special."

What was special, Kopple seems to suggest, was not the Academy Award for Best Documentary that Harlan County, U.S.A. won in 1977, or the respect it earned in the industry, but the relationships she and the crew built with the miners. It was her integration into the community that this documentarian seems to value most. 

Kopple got her start interning with Albert and David Maysles. Fresh off a course of study in clinical psychology, she came to New York and took a single class in cinéma vérité at the New School. One of the women in her class was the secretary at the Maysles Brothers' production house and told her that they needed an intern. "I was hired and I never went back to that class," Kopple says. What followed were stints as assistant editor working with Barbara Jarvis and then Larry Moyer, after which Kopple, like many socially minded documentarians of that era, made a film as part of a collective.

The collective, called Winter Film Collective, made one film together: Winter Soldier. "Vets coming out of Vietnam came to see us and we chose pieces of their interviews for the film," she reflects. "A woman donated a home in New Jersey and we all lived there, different people cooked. We were a collective but we weren't philosophically bound. Instead, our interest was showing you who these vets were." She adds, "Activism is a big word."

Kopple is known for her interest in social issues. While her attention to the Dixie Chicks' struggle with censorship in her and Cecilia Peck's 2006 film Shut Up and Sing "hints at a larger political issue," and her 1990 doc American Dream looks at a labor strike that pitted brother against brother, she emphasizes that her first priority is connecting with her subjects: "When you're with people for long periods of time, you're filming because there's a trust and a chemistry. Once they allow you in their world, it's wonderful--and that's what wonderful films are about."

This non-invasive tack leads to a clear but quiet politic. Kopple identifies that the goal is to "go with it. It's not as if I wouldn't plan [for a shoot], but you have to stick with the subjects. You just have to be there to take that on. If you do a film with an agenda, then it's just what's in your head and it's not really what's going on. You have to be loyal to the reality." And what loyalty to reality ultimately requires is a constant attention to the people you're filming.

Though Kopple's footage is commonly eye-catching, shooting itself is not always thrilling. "Lots of the time, not much is happening," she admits. "You're cooking or telling stories or playing music--that's what our lives are. Sometimes big things happen. Every project sort of brings with it surprises and unexpected turns." Clearly this kind of involvement in the everyday elements of her subjects' lives helps build the subject/filmmaker chemistry, and also lends to a feeling of greater proximity and access.

The sense of a cinematic backstage pass that informs Wild Man Blues, the 1998 doc on Woody Allen's sideline career as a Dixieland clarinet player, not only personalizes the cultural icon but softens his public persona in the wake of his messy divorce from actress Mia Farrow and his new marriage to Farrow's previously adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. Were it not for her inclusive and necessarily neutral vantage, her subjects might not have trusted the filmmaker to shoot them. Muckraking would be a major obstacle to her goals, and frankly she doesn't need to seek out that brand of material; if you're ready, she suggests, it'll come to you. "I didn't know we were going to be machine gunned [in Kentucky]," she explains. "I didn't know when we were driving around with an organizer that we'd find out a miner had been killed. You just have to be there and be ready."

When Kopple found her way to the Dixie Chicks, it was partly because they seemed unlikely characters for debate and partly because their friendships and openness stood out so prominently. "The film touches on issues like free speech and the war in Iraq, but it's about these three beautiful women you'd never expect such controversy to happen to," Kopple maintains. "The situation became very politicized and the singers chose to not apologize and to stick to what they believe in. I connected with them through their friendship and caring for each other. If we have girlfriends in our lives that cared for us like that, it'd be fantastic."

Of late, Kopple's pupils are making a splash. "I taught one semester at NYU and my class was incredible: Lucy Walker, Brett Morgen, Nanette Bernstein--they were all my students. They weren't lucky to train under me; it's me who was lucky, and they've done such wonderful things both for me and in their careers." Walker went on to make Blindsight, Devil's Playground and the IDA Award-nominated Waste Land. Morgen and Bernstein's credits as a team include the Academy Award-nominated On the Ropes, as well as The Kid Stays in the Picture; Morgen later directed Chicago 10, and Bernstein made American Teen.

When asked about Bernstein's recent foray into fiction (the romantic comedy Going the Distance), Kopple says, "It's great: I did the same [her 2005 drama Havoc]. We all need ways to express ourselves. When you work with docs, you're always seeking what's real, and that's what comes out when you shoot fiction; you have an instinct and a pulse for that." Fiction, in this way, is a training ground for the doc aesthetic. "The film that inspired me most toward documentary was Gillo Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers. It wasn't a doc, but it was shot like one. You felt it was really happening and you were on the inside of it. It unfolded in small ways that made it feel so real."

Kopple says that, as new technologies have made filmmaking a more accessible form, the documentary community has been able to enjoy "a great diversity of storytelling--the past, family, personal stories. We need all of this to be able to continue in independent films. We can't become complacent; we need to let more and more people in to tell their stories. It's going to make us closer and help us understand each other."

Looking back, Kopple cites titles like Peter Davis' Hearts and Minds, Bill Jersey's A Time for Burning and Michael Moore's Roger and Me as inspirations. "I'm moved by docs that give a voice to the voiceless or tell a different side of a story than we thought we knew," she maintains. "By telling stories in a compassionate and compelling way, you can inspire others to act. When you do that, a hidden issue emerges and that comes to the forefront of our consciousness--and with that you can compel people and even inspire the mainstream media to open their eyes and respond." This is precisely what she's done, but not by casual means. To her obliquely activist statement, she adds that docs can affect audiences mightily--"If you make the film well, that is."


Sara Vizcarrando runs the Review Section at Boxoffice Magazine, manages the Opening Movies at and teaches film studies at DeAnza College.