Harlan County USA: Criterion Collection Review

Mike Sutton takes a look at Criterion’s admirable release of Barbara Kopple’s superb documentary “Harlan County USA”. Anyone who thinks Ken Loach is a bit left-wing for their tastes might want to steer clear of this one. Review sponsored by DVD Pacific.

”When you believe in something strong enough that you’re ready to die for it, that’s when you get it”

All the mineworkers of Harlan County wanted was to gain recognition from Brookside Mining Company for their decision to join the United Mine Workers of America. Brookside refused to recognise the union and would not sign the union contract. The strike began in 1973 and was not finished until 1974 when the workers – without a great deal of help from the UMW – emerged victorious. Harlan County USA tells the story of the strike from the point of view of the townspeople, offering a combination of true-life humour, tragedy and suspense which is as compulsive as any work of fiction.

The faces of the people are fascinating, particularly those of the women, like those faces in old photographs which draw you into another time and place. And essentially, that’s what the film is doing because it has a scope which goes beyond the strike itself. We find out about the past of Harlan County – the ‘Bloody Harlan’ battles of the 1930s, the disastrous explosion of 1968 – and everything we find out about these people gives them tremendous dignity. There’s no question that this dignity is exploited by Kopple for ideological ends but this seems defensible in a context which gives a certain voice to the ‘other side’ – the mine bosses and the executives of Duke Power – and allows them to very eloquently condemn themselves out of their own mouths. I don’t think Kopple pretends to be remotely subjective but nor do I think that we want her to be – her talent is to rouse the viewer to indignation and anger without feeling that they’ve been had or trying to make them feel smug about how right-on they are.

Indeed, the more is revealed about the Brookside Mining Company, the more enraged the viewer is likely to become; housing its employees in shacks with no running water or electricity; offering no health cover or insurance of any kind; shirking responsibility for compensation; giving barely any security of employment, paying dismal wages; even having the nerve to deny that breathing in coal dust can cause pneumoconiosis. Were this related by one of the miners, we might dismiss it as subjective propaganda. But the officials of the company seem quite happy to admit all the above and consider it perfectly reasonable. For British viewers, it’s like looking at something from the 1930s and a wake-up call for those of us who thought the 1984-85 miners strike was as bad as it got.

The mining company and Duke Power come out of all this very badly. But the Union of Mine Workers doesn’t come out much better. We see a picture of a union in the pocket of the mineowners, rife with corruption and willing to kill people who get in the way. The murder of Jock Yablonski, who opposed the policies of UMW leader Tony Boyle, is a potent example of how union politics can be lethal – and if you’re interested in the story then take a look at the rather good Charles Bronson film Act of Vengeance. The workers of Harlan County feel cut-off from their union and have no kinship with Boyle and his cronies – and when you discover that Boyle and his executive considered a loss of 200-300 men down the mines every year to be an acceptable number, this is hardly surprising. So when Arnold Miller, head of the Miners For Democracy group, runs for the leadership of the union and wins, everyone expects major changes. Boyle was eventually convicted of the Yablonski killings in 1974. Meanwhile, the strike in Harlan County goes on regardless of the affairs of the union. Sometimes the community seems in danger of breaking but they have an inner strength which seems to escape both the mineowners and the unions – the strength which comes from sincere conviction and moral certainty.

Some of the stories are heartbreaking yet inspiring. We hear about deaths from accidents caused by mismanagement, countless cases of people crippled for life with ‘black lung’, people living in a kind of Victorian poverty. People are shot by anti-union gun thugs while their families remain proud and defiant. There are wonderful characters here – Lois Scott, for example, pencil and cigarette in hand, organising the whole community through little but force of personality. When she pulls out a gun from her brassiere, she has a look on her face of sheer exhilaration which is both funny and scary. At one point, the octogenarian Mrs Florence Reese speaks at a UMW conference and says they will strike “until hell freezes over” before singing a song she composed in the 1930s. As she sings “Which side are you on”, you realise that this is a film about conflicts which have existed for as long as capitalism and will continue to rage for hundreds of years to come. Later in the film, Mrs Reese says, “If I get shot, they can’t shoot the union out of me” which seems to encapsulate the spirit which the film captures.

Barbara Kopple is a fine documentarian because she knows when to film and what questions to ask. That sounds like very little but its actually the crux of good documentary filmmaking – along with the kind of careful editing which takes four years of filming and compresses it into 104 minutes. She rarely allows her own presence to intrude, at least not in the manner of Nick Broomfield or Michael Moore, and she has an eye for a dramatic confrontation or a telling image. Nor does she indulge in showy technique for its own sake. It’s very clear that this is not objective filmmaking – its passionately committed – but nor is it rabble rousing. She also makes this true story remarkably suspenseful without cheapening the material. We aren’t hyped up for the violence but we know its inevitably going to come and it puts us on edge. We fear the brutality but it doesn’t excite us and Kopple never shows us violence except to emphasise how horrible it is. That’s responsible and mature filmmaking which deserves recognition. The first gunshots come in the darkness of a dawn suffused with chaotic terror and prepare us for more, and worse. Yet the violence is tempered with a sense of hope – the first skirmish is what brings the community together and, ultimately, this is what leads to their victory. This story of the little man against the system has a primal narrative force and the fact that its true makes it all the more compelling.

The Disc

Criterion’s disc of Harlan County USA is an admirable presentation of this important but somewhat neglected American film. Its presented in an anamorphic transfer framed at 1.78:1, reflecting the original theatrical presentation. The film looks very good indeed, taking into account the original source material which is grainy 16MM. The image remains grainy but there’s plenty of detail and its certainly very sharp and clear.

The mono soundtrack is fine although the somewhat limited recording techniques mean that some of the dialogue is a little indistinct. Luckily, subtitles are provided to elucidate some of the less audible sections. The folk music sounds wonderful throughout– although if you don’t like bluegrass then you’re likely to be a little less enamoured.

Although this is only a single disc release, a good collection of supplementary materials has been produced. The principal extra is a commentary from Barbara Kopple and her editor Nancy Baker. This is a fascinating, enthusiastic track which explains the process of making a film over such a lengthy period of time and then pulling the vast amount of film into some kind of shape. The two women also address the issues of feminist filmmaking and the nature of subjective and non-neutral documentary. Making the film was clearly a dangerous activity. Kopple and her crew became part of the community while making the movie and there’s more of her memories in a 20-minute making-of featurette which also features contributions from the crew, UMW organiser Houston Elmore, strike activist Bessie Parker and miner Jerry Johnson. This is interesting but brief and sometimes raises interesting points only to drop them due to pressures of time.

We also get some briefer features. Roger Ebert introduces a 13 minute roundtable discussion with Kopple, Baker, Dickens and cinematographer Hart Perry. Ebert wears his liberal conscience on his sleeve and that sets the tone for a slightly sentimental and self-congratulatory tone but we also get some informative background information from Perry. There’s a five minute interview with filmmaker John Sayles who talks about his admiration for the film and its influence on his own Matewan, a story of union organisation in the 1920s and there’s a ten minute featurette in which Hazel Dickens is interviewed about her songs which provided much of the soundtrack to the film

Finally, we get six rare outtakes, a theatrical trailer from the film’s re-release in 2005 and a booklet featuring two excellent essays.

The influence of Harlan County USA can still be felt, not only in the recent wave of documentaries which have spilled over from arthouse cinemas into multiplexes but also in films such as North Country and Capote. Although it doesn’t wear its feminist ideology on its sleeve, it’s also a significant moment in women’s filmmaking – one which perhaps has not led to the explosion in films from female directors that might have been expected. Most of all, it’s a great story which, despite its success on the original release, deserves to be a lot better known. Criterion’s DVD should go some way to getting it a wider audience.

Mike Sutton

Updated: Jun 18, 2006

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