Of Politics and Passion: Barbara Kopple's American Dream
No doubt when most people hear the name Barbara Kopple they think of Harlan County, USA, her emotionally charged film on the struggle of a coal miners' union against exploitive management. However, in the 13 years since she made that Academy Award-winning documentary, Kopple has produced and directed a number of films, including Keeping On, a dramatic feature for American Playhouse; Winter Soldier, which won the Cannes Film Festival Critic's Choice Award; Civil Rights: The Struggle Continues, a video documentary about the commemoration of the deaths of three civil rights workers killed in Mississippi in 1964; No Nukes, which she co-directed with Haskell Wexler; and Hurricane Irene, a high-definition videotape of an international peace festival held in Japan. She has just completed her latest film, entitled American Dream, which received its premiere at the 28th New York Film Festival in October.
Set in the mid 1980's, American Dream tells the story of a local meatpacking union in Austin, Minnesota, that refuses to accept lower wages and finds itself fighting not only its employer, the Hormel corporation, but the international union leadership as well. The film uses this story to approach the larger subjects of what happened to working people in the United States during the Reagan era and how Reagan's anti-union rhetoric was turned into government policy and corporate practice. Kopple presents a remarkably clearsighted view of the complex relationship among the local rank and file, who believed their wages would only go up and their lives would only get better; the national union leader, who wants to bring up all of his members' wages; and the company, whose historically paternalistic attitude towards workers ends up transformed into a simple bottom line philosophy—the need to remain competitive.
Similar in style to Harlan County, Kopple's cinéma vérité approach places us in the center of the three-way fight. She weaves the disparate elements of her story into a fast-paced dramatic narrative—the camera moves from the union hall to board rooms and into people's living rooms, painting an intimate portrait of a community being torn apart. If, as many believe, the 80's were bad for labor, then Kopple's American Dream vividly depicts the very human aspect of that widely-held notion, while at the same time raising questions about leadership, democracy, and corporate responsibility.
Let's talk about how you got started making films.
I really wanted to learn about documentaries, so I went to SVA (School of Visual Arts). I took this class in cinéma vérité. There was a woman in the class who said: "I work for these people, the Maysles brothers. They're just finishing a film and they could use some help. Would you like to come?" So I said, "Yes, are you kidding?" And I never went back into that class again. The wonderful thing about working for Alan and David Maysles was that they were the first film company that treated women as equals. They solicited your opinions, they brought you into their filmmaking "family. " Everybody attended all the meetings; everybody's opinion was important. It was a very nurturing place to be; they let you reach your fullest creative potential; and so, they're really the people who guided me and helped me.
What would you say is the biggest difference between now and when you started out?
It was the birth of a whole new style. The work of Bob Drew, (D. A.) Pennebaker, (R.) Leacock and the Maysles' created the cinéma vérité style. I come from the generation who learned from them. When I started you had a strong sense of a real school of film making going on around you—using a hand held camera, using only a two person crew, trying to be like flies on the wall. All of these ideas were just exploding and it was a much more supportive period than it is now.
So you would say the strongest influence on you is the vérité style?
Oh yes, sure. I mean they got me. They roped me right in. (Laughing.) Definitely. That's what I do. It's much different than the traditional technique. For example, the remarkable work that Ken Burns has just done on the Civil War takes a more traditional approach to documentary storytelling. Whereas, the kinds of films that influenced me have more to do with watching people, letting scenes come alive so you actually see people change through the course of the film, rather than sitting clown and asking questions about an incident—you're able to watch things as they're happening, almost like you're right in there. At least that's what I try to do. What's important for me is to be somewhere over a long period of time and watch how people deal with crises and react to change.
Over the last 15 years, we've seen an abundance of documentaries, particularly on television, and over the last few years, we've seen a number of TV shows use the verite style. Does this trouble you?
Do you mean like the docudrama stuff?
No, more the re-enactments.
No, not really. I'm of the mind that almost anything goes. What's impor tant is for people to get out what they want to say in a creative way. If we think of new forms—like Michael Moore did for Roger and Me—to look at a very depressing, very difficult situation, I think that's magnificent. If we can attract viewers, by doing dramatic re-enactments, to look at very real questions, I think that's terrific. I'm not a documentary purist by any means, I believe in communication. I believe you have to use every means you can to reach people - to get to their minds. No, I'm glad. I think the more we put out there about what's real the better off we'll be. I'm sure a lot of people would disagree with me, but that's not where I'm coming from. I applaud any new innovation, particularly ifit works. I'm all for change.
So you're not suspicious of these cop shows that re-enact...
It doesn't bother me at all. What do you mean, suspicious?
Well, it's not just the cop shows, but the way television has taken the verite style and the documentary form and turned it into "entertainment."
I have to tell you I'm not a big TV watcher. The only show I occasionally watch is thirtysomething. So I don't really know what's on the air. Anyway, I think that we as political filmmakers and documentarians should steal what's good in these shows and put it into our own work. Take it back. Because good storytelling is so hard to master. Any time you've mastered it and you've gotten people to feel something or to see something new, that's important.
Do you consider yourself a political filmmaker?
Oh, yes. I think I'm a political person first and a filmmaker second. To do the kind of work that I do, you have to be driven by an incredible passion for the things you want to say. If that element, that passion, wasn't there, I would be hard pressed to do this kind of work. The foundation of your own political beliefs adds to the drive and perseverance you need to keep on go ing. To spend the kind of time I do on these films and to see the toll it takes on one's life, there has to be something there that's powerful. Standing outside a meat packing plant at three o'clock in the morning in the middle of a Minne sota winter is not a really wonderful way to spend one's existence. There has to be something deeper.
What do you hope the film conveys for your efforts?
There can be many things of course, but one thing about making films is that everyone in the audience brings something different away with them. No matter what I do and how I feel, other people are going to interpret the film the way they want to. I'll never forget when Harlan County screened at the Dallas Film Festival, this older woman got up and said, "I've been a Republican all my life and always hated unions, but, gal, after seeing your film, I just better re-think it." That was a long time ago, and I still remember that clearly because it said to me that films can have an impact, they can do things. Maybe they can't change people, but perhaps they can at least provoke people to think and to feel. That's what makes. it worth it, moments like that.
I don't know what your class background is, but it seems to me that your films deal a lot with class, a topic we don't see much of in American films.
I grew up in a very middle class environment, very protected and very cared for. I guess being brought up in that way gave me the energy to try and explore things I was curious about or didn't know about. One of the things I discovered when I was doing Harlan County was the kind of soul a nd energy and the kind of beauty of the people in these small towns. Once these people know you, they genuinely care about what happens to you. The same thing happened in Austin, Minnesota, when we were making American Dream. I would come to Austin and people would treat me like they knew me for years. And I guess the most important fact is that every time I see people stand up for themselves, every time I see what people are willing to sacrifice for what they believe in, and every time I see people fight for their basic human rights, something stirs inside of me and I can't keep away from it. I find it tremendously compelling. I just want to know more and more about how they do it and why they do it. At the same time, I want to show these people and their fight to an audience who maybe cloesn't u nderstand that these people a re fighting for their very survival.
When did you start working on American Dream?
In 1983. I had been reading about plant closings and wage concessions. I wanted to investigate what was happening out in the industrial landscape, which seemed devastated. I wanted to find out why this was happening and I wanted to focus on an area which was really American. So the logical thing was meat packing. Meat packing is one of the most dangerous industries in the country. Men work with really sharp knives and saws, standing shoulder to shoulder lifting huge pieces of meat up and clown all day long. I heard rumors that an Armour plant in Worthington, Minnesota was closing, so I went there. In fact the plant did close, but people had transfer rights. Except, then, all the plants were sold. People were stuck with nothing. It was very depressing, everybody had given up. What they were talking about was defeat and blaming themselves. Every time I would come back from there, I would get more depressed, thinking that labor had changed, that the people's sense of self-worth had changed. I was hoping to find out how and why the economic crisis was affecting people in this way. And I was interested in examining the whole sense of unionism in this film.
Is there a history of unionism in the meat packers like there was with the miners in Harlan?
It's less so because meat packing is so transient. However, in Austin, Minnesota, the town the film focuses on, the union has been there for 75 years. It's changed its name but it's still the same union. Also, there are generations of meat packers in Austin. Your grandfather and your father both worked there so you work there; and of course, there's a real sense of tradition, of solidarity, of never crossing a picket line.
As a filmmaker you're in an unusual position because you've made one film, Harlan County, which is about triumphant unionism, and now with American Dream, you've made a film that could be described as a depiction of unionism in decline.
I certainly wouldn't characterize it as a decline. I think American Dream depicts a particular moment in our his tory. A moment when Ronald Reagan's anti-union policies set the tone for a wave of anti-union sentiment in this country. I think it shows a point in time when corporations were able to make whatever kinds of decisions they wanted to and the government bent over backwards to help them. I see it as a bad period, but you know labor has always had its ups and downs, as early as the mid 1800's. Over the years we've seen unions come alive, falter and come alive again, so I don't think we've seen the end of unions by any means. I think they are definitely going to rise again.
For me, American Dream shows how things are in this country right now. Icould have just done a film about P-9, the local union in Au stin, and all the terrible forces that were stopping them from getting their $10.69 an hour. But in this film, I Wanted to do something different. I wanted to have a broader perspective, because so often we're presented with things that have a limited view of a particular issue. I felt the time had come to expand the discussion. I wanted to show where the international stood,I wanted to show where the corporations stood, andIwanted to show how these positions impacted people's lives. Then, in addition, I Ianted to show what people did in response to those decisions. As a result this is a much different film than Harlan County. It's a more complex film, it's richer and...
You might say darker. But I think it's more a matter of tone. American Dream has a more serious tone. The issues in Harlan County were clear cut—black and white—either you're for the union or against it. If you're for the union, then you're with us; if you're against it, then you're rich and you have something that you don't want us to have. In American Dream, the issues are more complicated. It's basically about corporate greed, short-term planning and about how economic crises affect people's values and communities. It tries to understand why plants are closing, why people are getting wage concessions and what corporations are doing. Also, there aren't any villains in this film. The corpora tions are the villains in some sense, but they're different than the corporations of Harlan County, where they sent out gun thugs and machine-gunned u s with automatic weapon s. These people in Austin, they talk to you. For example, the workers did civil disobedience, and when the executive vice president of Hormel was asked, "What do you think about the civil disobedience? " he started quoting Gandhi and Thoreau.
Also, the film depicts a fight between a local and the international and examines their different strategies and policies. The film presents the audi ence with three differing viewpoints. First, there is the local union position: we worked hard all of our lives, we've lost fingers, been injured and we want a quality life. Then there is the union leader who says, "You can't do it this way. Hormel is the highest paying employer and you have to go with a pattern, you just can't go out on your own and forget the other meat packers. " And finally there are the corporations, who talk about the need to be competitive.
All the people in this film that had to take leadership position s, except for t h e corporations, were well intentioned. So the real conflict comes about when you have all of these people with really good hearts, fighting and struggling to make their lives better and ending up opposing each other. What we've tried to do is tell this story through everybody's eyes. And hopefully create a portrait of what's going on in this country between workers, companies and the government.
Speaking of the government, you got some money from the NBA for this film. Given the current controversy would y ou take money from the NEA now?
No. I couldn't take any money from any organization that censors fel low artists. How do we know what's going to be considered obscene? I mean, once that starts we're leaving ourselves open for the worst kind of censorship imaginable, and I never could be a party to that.
Do you feel any conflict in taking government money in any way?
No. Because all the government money—all the government money I've been lucky enough to get—has had no restrictions. Also, it's not easy to get government money. In fact, it's very hard. You go through a stringent scmt iny. So once they give it to you, they let you do what you said you were going to do, and I'm not opposed to that at all.
But as a filmmaker, the issue of money wears on you in every sense. I remember when I was in Austin, we would stay up until one o'clock in the morning in meetings and then we would sleep for two hours and get up at three o'clock to be on the picket line in 60 below weather. And I remember my office calling one day and saying, "Well, Barbara, you have $275 left in the bank. What are you going to do about it? " What am I going t.o do about it? I'm freezing, I can't even get my body warm. What do you mean what am I going to do about it? I remember pacing back and forth trying to think. I couldn't even think. Then half-an-hour later my office called back again and told me we got $25,000 from Bmce Springsteen. I burst into tears and couldn't stop cry ing, half of it was exhaustion and the other half was because it was such a release from all that pressure. It's difficult. It drains you and those things don't always come through.
Overall, I think this country is thoroughly unsupportive of artists and filmmakers. The amount of support is minimal. I mean if you ask for $50,000, they give you $500. Sort of like having a car that's a lemon, you keep putting money into just keeping it going. By the end, you've hooked everything that you own, you do other people's film for a token salary, it's impossible. It's such a negative system. There has to be some kind of change, so people can express themselves in different art forms and so filmmakers can document what's going on in this country.
I noticed you gave your editors co-director credit on American Dream.
Well, I felt that they had grappled and struggled for so long they deserved it. The great thing about making films is that you don't do it alone. So many people put so much hard work into the process- everybody working together, answering all the questions, making the film clear, making it exciting for an audience. I just wanted to stand up and acknowledge their effort.
So you believe in a kind of collaborative process?
Oh, absolutely. How can the people you work with respect you, and you respect them, if you don't engage in a discussion and dialogue where you can exchange ideas? I think it's important to give each other a hard time and talk and argue things out. I think it allows the best creative thoughts to come through. To me, thinking of the director as the auteur, making all the choices, is a very limited way of working.
How does it feel to finish a film you've been working on for seven years?
I'll tell you, I feel really lucky. I feel lucky because I've been trusted by people. I've been able to go in behind closed doors and have people really tmst me. I've had people pour out their hearts and souls to me and not feel awkward about doing it. That makes me feel very happy and really fortunate.
Joseph Di Mattia is a freelance writer based in New York.