Saturday, August 25, 2007

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

*****
USA

Part-time sound recordist Barbara Kopple went to live among the coal miners on strike in Harlan, Kentucky in 1972 and over the next few years directed, produced and did her own sound recording on one of the canonical documentaries. In tracking the ardour, the wrenching and the violence of the coal miners' battle - it's a war more than a battle - she is neither objective nor impartial (could you be when you're being shot at?). But in many ways she manages to take herself out of the set-up, so that her presence behind the camera feels less like a filter and more like a channel. Continually referring to similar and reportedly much bloodier struggles in the 1930s, she locates the union workers' then-contemporary strife within a tragic, unyielding historical cycle, which she accepts as something infinitely denser and more forbidding than hers or any individual perspective could be. In this sense, the coal miners - and their wives (who at least match and often surpass them in terms of zeal and backbone) - take on a collective, timeless image of the downtrodden but unquenchable fighter-worker. But in portraying them this way Kopple doesn't water them down or turn them into anonymously noble, spreadable stand-ins for the grand cause. They are each permitted their individual faces and voices and afforded their own temperaments and dignities, which brings across all the more vividly the intimate impact and urgency of their war.

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