Saturday, April 21, 2012

No Neutrals

If you're in San Francisco, you surely already know from the public advertisements, the press coverage, and the convivial lines forming outside the Kabuki and other festival venues, that the 55th San Francisco International Film Festival is in full swing. Although I haven't written much about the festival here at Hell On Frisco Bay as of yet, I wrote a few quick capsule previews for 7x7 last week. I'm actually not in San Francisco right now, as I'm attending another festival in another town (Albuquerque), but I'll be back tomorrow and am excited to get into the swing of attending screenings at my hometown fest.

Although I'm having a great time in New Mexico, I'm disappointed I'll be missing the chance to see documentary filmmaking legend Barbara Kopple (director of American Dream, Wild Man Blues, etc.) receive the SFIFF's Persistence Of Vision Award at the Kabuki tomorrow afternoon, along with the screening of a 35mm print (that's according to the Film on Film Foundation) of her extraordinarily gripping, influential 1976 amalgam of ethnography, history and activism, Harlan County, U.S.A.. Shockingly, there are still tickets available for this event, where Kopple will surely share stories to inspire a new generation of Occupy-era filmmakers and media watchers. 

Following is a never-before-published article I wrote about Harlan County, U.S.A. All illustrating images are screen captures from the Criterion DVD edition of the film: 

The reigning in of documentarists takes many forms . . . They are enjoined to be "objective." This is, of course, a nonsensical injunction. Documentarists make endless choices: of topic, people, vistas, angles, lenses, juxtapositions, sounds, words. Each selection is an expression of a point of view, whether conscious or not, acknowledged or not. Any documentary group that claims to be objective is merely asserting a conviction that its choices have a special validity and deserve everyone's acceptance and admiration. Even behind the first step of selection, choice of topic, there is a motive or set of motives. 
Barnouw suggests that true objectivity is a straw man; impossible when applied to a human-created art form. Each member of our species has developed a complex enough psychological and existential worldview that we approach every aspect of our life colored by conscious and unconscious biases. A decision to take an action, make a statement or ask a question will inevitably communicate these biases, intentionally or unintentionally.

A successful filmmaker understands this, and will not expend energy on a fruitless quest to make her films purely objective. She may make an effort to present a diversity of voices and opinions. She will try to avoid presenting untruthful material unchallenged in some way (unless her objective is to mislead). But to attempt to give voice to every possible perspective on an issue, or to give precisely equal weight to two opposing positions, is an impossibly impractical goal. Wiser to follow one's own instincts and predilections, biased as they may be. Often it is the filmmakers courageous enough to follow them as far as they may lead, that make the most effective and watchable films. For instance, the Academy-Award-winning documentary Harlan County, U.S.A. by Barbara Kopple.

According to cinematographer Kevin Keating, interviewed on the Criterion DVD supplemental documentary The Making of Harlan County, U.S.A., Kopple and her crew were covering miner and black-lung advocate Arnold Miller's campaign for the presidency of the United Mine Workers of America at the time that a strike in Harlan County, Kentucky was initiated. Workers at the county's Brookside Mine had voted to join the UMW, but the company, controlled by the North Carolina-based corporation Duke Power, had refused to give them a contract accepting that vote. In response, the workers struck and picketed the mine, drawing the company into a showdown in which the latter employed scabs, strikebreakers and so-called "gun thugs" to try to put an end to the protest. Kopple's team took what they thought would be a "side trip, almost a tangent" as Keating puts it, to the Brookside picket line.

The picket line, as one can see in scenes from the film, had an inherent drama and danger to it. Confrontations occurred, and the presence of weapons on both sides of the conflict made for a potentially lethal situation. Any filmmaker trying to photograph the day-to-day life on the line would be putting her life at risk. Even an attempt for a filmmaker to try to remain "objective" in the face of this situation could have led to a disastrous result. By picking one side off the conflict to focus on and ally with, Kopple and her crew did not avoid exposure to danger, but solidarity between strikers and camera crew created diffused some of the danger for both of these parties.

Kopple's background as a filmmaker gave her credentials in two of the categories of documentarian that Barnouw uses as chapter headings for his Documentary book: observer and guerilla. She had worked as an assistant to David and Albert Maysles, whose 1969 film Salesman is considered a landmark in the "Direct Cinema" movement emphasizing the camera as observer. This North American-centered movement was connected in spirit to the British Free Cinema movement of the 1960s which, as Barnouw describes, "often poked into places society was inclined to ignore or keep hidden." The Maysles had followed a number of door-to-door Bible peddlers in Florida, most certainly a milieu that had been ignored in mass-media portrayals up to that point. But it was also the methodology of the Maysles that had made Salesman remarkable: the intimacy of a very small crew of image and sound recorders (just the Maysles brothers themselves), a lack of extra-diegetic material such as voiceovers and graphics, and an emphasis on the synchronization of sound with picture, giving the voices of the salesmen and their customers a real-time authenticity that had been all but technologically impossible a decade or so before. Kopple worked for the Maysles on the promotion end of Salesman, and then assisted in the filming of Gimme Shelter, which showed a Rolling Stones concert's turn to tragedy.

Her credentials as a guerilla filmmaker were established through her participation as an uncredited co-director in the collective that made Winter Soldier, about the Vietnam War veterans who returned to the United States to testify about the war crimes that they witnessed and participated in. Virtually every aspect of this film was conceived and executed in opposition to the prevailing orthodoxies of documentary filmmaking and distribution, from its subject matter and unapologetically anti-war stance, to its collaborative and anonymous authorship.

But Kopple's resume meant little to the strikers of Harlan County. It was dedication that would earn her 3-person film crew their trust. A turning point in her relationship with her film subjects came after a car accident delayed her crew's presence at the early morning picketing. Undeterred, the team walked over a mile to to protest site with cumbersome film equipment in hand. Their commitment to documenting the workers' cause was no longer called into question. Strikers offered up their homes for the filmmakers to stay in during the shoot. They became increasingly accustomed to Kopple's camera presence at protests, meetings and even down in the mines, where the opening sequence of the film was shot. One vivid scene in the documentary depicts a meeting at the local Multi- Purpose Center, in which internal grievances are aired heatedly. It's unlikely that strategy disagreements within the union movement would have been expressed in front of a crew that the participants felt uncomfortable with.

Kopple's camera became, with her full complicity, a tool of the strike. The rolling camera caught a great deal of violent and threatening behavior, mostly from the strikebreakers, at least according to what footage was ultimately used in the finished film. But it also may have prevented a certain amount of violence. As Kopple puts it in the Making of Harlan County, U.S.A., "no one wants to commit murder in living color." The protection the camera afforded felt powerful enough to the participants that Kopple's crew would come to the picket line and pretend to shoot footage even at times when, due to the financial or logistical problems that plagued the independent production, there was no film left to expose. This might be seen as a filmmaker's ultimate show of solidarity with a political movement- even without the chance to obtain footage Kopple and her crew were willing to risk being in harm's way.

One might wonder if, thanks to this close alliance between filmmaker and subject, Harlan County U.S.A. might be left open to criticism that it presents an unfairly one-sided distortion of the strike situation. But any such criticism, in order to be effective, must be accompanied by evidence of some sort: accounts of important events that might have been left out of the record, or specific information that might put the material seen on screen in another context. I am not aware of any such rebuttal.

Kopple did include a great deal of information to contextualize the strikers' situation, in the form of historical footage recovered from the collections of local filmmakers and news outlets, as well as from the National Archives and elsewhere. This material includes 16mm footage shot of violent miner protests in the 1930s, and more recent footage concerning the activism and subsequent murder of UMW presidential candidate Joseph Yabloski in 1969. Seeing these clips edited into the film roughly chronologically, interspersed with footage from the strike, informs us of the blood-soaked history of the labor movement in coal country in general, and Harlan County in particular. She also interviews old-timers who remember the battles of the thirties and can put their direct experience into words on the soundtrack. The historical context is vitally important to the success of certain sections of the film, as when the April, 1974 conviction of Yablonski's murderer seems to increase the morale of the strikers, who by then had been picketing for months on end. Without an understanding of the basic structure of events, this moment would have far less impact.

Kopple's use of music in Harlan County, U.S.A. serves a similar function. She captures with her camera performances of songs, some in front of audiences and others more informally intimate, that have been rallying cries or elegies for Appalachian laborers over the decades. One particularly effective moment is when Nimrod Workman sings the mournful ballad "O Death" to bring us out of the historical footage of Yablonski's funeral and into the present. Kopple also enlisted Hazel Dickens, a miner's daughter and well-known bluegrass musician, to perform songs to be used in portions of the film in which recorded dialogue doesn't need to be foregrounded. This music is an oral history tradition in its own right, and its incorporation into the film is, along with the historical visuals, a reminder that 1973's fight is merely another chapter in a generations-long struggle. That Dickens wrote and sang a new song, "They Can Never Keep Us Down", for use in the film's closing credits, brings the historical back to the present; there is no aspect of the miners' struggle that becomes frozen in the past, as all members of the movement, from organizers to picketers to musicians and filmmakers, are all part of a tradition that will continue into the future as long as there is a need to fight for safe and decent working conditions.

While making Harlan County, U.S.A. Kopple surely must have felt a stronger connection to this tradition shared by the people she was standing beside every day, than to the documentary filmmaker traditions. In fact, she says outright on the Criterion commentary track, "I wasn't thinking about the tradition of documentary." Perhaps this is why, despite her experience with the Maysles from a few years earlier, Harlan County U.S.A. is not an example of Direct Cinema. It's true that certain techniques were shared, such as the size of the crew and the importance of capturing the authentic speech of the people seen on camera (in this case often using less-cumbersome wireless microphones). But the incorporation of archival footage, camera- address interviews, and non-diegetic music on the soundtrack, all ensure that the film is of a more hybridized form.

Kopple's close allegiance with the strikers' cause helped push her in film in the direction of cinema verite in certain moments as well. This is the documentary movement that Barnouw assigns with the label of catalyst, and indeed Kopple was a catalyst on more than one occasion. Two remarkable scenes involve the most feared of the "gun thug" strikebreakers, Basil Collins. In the first scene, we witness an exchange between Collins and Kopple herself. Collins threateningly asks to see the director's press badge, and in response she asks him if he has any identification himself. When he answers that he doesn't have it with him, Kopple sarcastically retorts that "I guess I must have forgotten mine too". After this she's warned by one of the picketers that she's just made herself an enemy. A Direct Cinema purist would avoid stepping into her subject matter so directly, or if she did, would make sure the final film contained no visible trace of the interference. But by this time Kopple was deeply enough intertwined with a particular side of the strike that she was almost forced to bring herself into the drama in this way. Her decision to keep the scene in the film was both truthful to events as they occurred, and to the ultimate goal of providing an exciting film for the viewer to watch.

In the second scene, the Harlan County U.S.A. crew plays an even more directly catalytic role. Camera assistant Ann Lewis delivers to the ineffectual sheriff a warrant for the arrest of Collins for flourishing a deadly weapon. The warrant was obtained from a judge, presumably at least in part on the basis of evidence collected by the film crew itself. There is no shortage of footage of Basil and his fellow "gun thugs" holding to that nickname by bearing their arms in front of the camera. The production of the warrant is a victory for the striking miners and their supporters, at least for that day. And no other moment in the film better illustrates the bond between the crew and the picketers than this one.

"They say in Harlan County, there are no neutrals there," is a line of music sung at least twice in Harlan County, U.S.A. Barbara Kopple and her crew were not neutrals but increasingly involved players in the drama they were capturing on film. As a miner named Jerry Johnson says in the Making of Harlan County, U.S.A., "I don't think we'd have won without the camera crew." And it's almost certain that neither would have Kopple's film been the success it was if she had taken any other approach. Her film shows "objectivity" to be a unicorn foolishly chased by the documentarian.


  1. Brian, what a great piece and what fortuitous timing. I was checking FB while sitting in the Kabuki waiting for Kopple's POV Award program to start, linked to this piece and had just enough time to read it before the show started. It added immeasurably to my appreciation of the film, which I hadn't seen since its original release. I don't know if you've heard, but fire alarms went off at the Kabuki yesterday afternoon, ten minutes into Kopple's post-screening, on-stage interview, and the entire building had to be evacuated. So that was the end of that.

  2. No, Michael, I hadn't heard! Only ten minutes of an interview would be rather disappointing, but the film is so good that I imagine few regretted their decision to attend nevertheless. I'm glad this article could provide some further context for the screening! Hope to see you around the festival soon; I'll be heading there this afternoon.