When documentarian Barbara Kopple first visited Harlan, Ky., as a young filmmaker in the 1970s, striking coal miners didn’t trust her or her camera. When she tried to interview the miners’ wives, they would say their names were Florence Nightingale or Martha Washington. Then, one morning as she was driving to the mine to film a 5 a.m. picket, her car toppled over into a ditch on a muddy mountain road. She and her crew climbed out unhurt, lugged their equipment through the rain all the way to the picket line and finally won the confidence of the community.
“From that moment, they trusted us. We lived in their homes, they fed us, they protected us,” Kopple said during a recent interview in Toronto, where she will be honoured with a special achievement award at the Hot Docs festival on May 3. That evening will feature a screening of a surprise title Kopple has selected herself from her filmography, but the best-known work in the retrospective is certainly the Oscar-winning 1976 documentary Harlan County, USA. Filled with tense pickets, firebrand speeches (especially from the women), rousing folk songs and gunshots, too, it is considered a classic of the genre, and in 1990 was selected to be included in the U.S. Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.
After she heard a radio story about the murder of union reformer Joseph Yablonski and his family, Kopple had originally set out to make a film about the upstart union leader Arnold Miller, who was trying to unseat entrenched union bosses in the grassroots revolt that had led to the killings. When Miller, who had promised to organize non-unionized miners, improbably won, Kopple borrowed US$12,000 and followed the story to Harlan, where miners fought for a year to get a first contract. Footage of the bitter 1973-74 strike runs like a river through a chronologically fluid documentary in which the killings and the Miller campaign are eventually addressed, too.
“Patience and persistence,” Kopple answers, when asked what it takes to make any of her docs, but timing, whether she can control it or not, is also key. Today, her documentary Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing looks darkly prescient of political divisions and internet trolling as it recounts what happened after the popular female band was boycotted for speaking out against the Iraq War in 2003. On the other hand, Miss Sharon Jones! is tragically unaware of what is to come – the American soul singer, who died in 2016, is shown conquering cancer but passed away shortly after the film was released – yet the doc captured the story of the singer’s late-blooming career just in the nick of time.
“I never thought anything was going to happen to Sharon Jones; she was so strong and positive,” Kopple said, adding she never worries whether the work might be timely or timeless. “You never know what is going to happen in a film. All I want to do is get them to trust me, to be able to tell a great story.”
One film that may not endure – and which isn’t included in the retrospective – is Wild Man Blues, the 1997 film in which Kopple followed Woody Allen and wife Soon-Yi Previn as his jazz band toured Europe. In the #MeToo moment, Allen’s keen interest in relations between older men and younger women make him a troubling figure, particularly since his daughter Dylan has repeated allegations, dating back to his bitter separation from actress Mia Farrow, that he had molested her. Still, Kopple says she would make that film again.
“Who knows what lurks in the relationship with Mia and Woody?” she said. “For me, Woody was funny, he was open and he was madly in love with Soon-Yi, who kept him in his place. I think you just have to judge people by how you feel about them.”
She followed another controversial family – and one of Allen’s leading ladies – in Running from Crazy, a 2013 documentary about Mariel Hemingway’s struggle to overcome the family legacy of multiple suicides, including that of her grandfather, Ernest. It’s a film about a very famous family whose members have led very dramatic lives: Mariel, who appeared as Allen’s girlfriend in his film Manhattan at the age of 16, was launched into showbiz by her sister, Margaux, the hard-living model and actress who killed herself in 1996. Her sister Jean also struggles with mental-health problems and their parents are described as alcoholics. Amidst all the drama, one of the more shocking revelations in Running from Crazy may have gone largely unnoticed: On camera, Mariel alleges that her father Jack, Ernest’s eldest son, sexually abused both her older sisters when they were children.
“I made Mariel say it in three or four different places in the film, to make sure that this is really what she thought happened. She did,” Kopple said.
Kopple didn’t see it coming, any more than she anticipated the #MeToo movement, but welcomes the catharsis: “I am really happy women are speaking out,” she said.
In her 2015 memoir Out Came the Sun, Hemingway revealed that after the filming of Manhattan, Allen pressured her to join him on a trip to Paris but she refused when she realized they would not have separate rooms. However, she backed away from the abuse allegations she made to Kopple, merely speculating there were secrets in her family.
It’s a telling difference that speaks to how successfully Kopple works with her subjects. Before Harlan County, she began her career in the sound department and has often done the sound recording on her own films – or at least listened in as subjects she’s hooked up with wireless mikes go about their business.
“They get so involved in what they are doing, they forget we are there.”
For Kopple, patience, persistence – and a knack for being in the right place at the right time – have made her career.
The Barbara Kopple retrospective at Hot Docs runs May 1-4