Harlan County USA

USA 1976, Documentary, 100' | Director, Screenplay Barbara Kopple | DoP Hart Perry, Kevin Keating | Editor Nancy Baker, Mary Lampson, Mirra Bank | Sound Barbara Kopple, Tim Coleman, Bob Gates, John Walz, Josh Waletzky, Lee Dichter | Music Merle Travis, Nimrod Workman, Sarah Gunnings, Florence Reese, Hazel Dickens | Production Cabin Creek Films | Distribution Arsenal - Institut für Film und Videokunst e.V.

In 1973, mine workers in the colliery town of Brookside began tough industrial action, as seldom seen in the USA since the war. They wanted to force the mine owners into accepting union recognition. The exploited miners, sick from coal dust, had to fight not only the violence of the scabs, organized by the employers, but also incompetent and corrupt union leaders. This industrial action, fought relentlessly and tenaciously on all sides, was the subject of the documentation Harlan County USA, which won an Oscar in 1977. After labour leader Yablonski had been murdered, along with his wife and daughter, by hired killers in the pay of union bosses, a “Miners of Democracy” campaign was formed to do away with the criminal union bosses.

American director Barbara Kopple initially intended making a film just about this campaign. But she stayed longer than intended. For three years Kopple lived with her camera team with those involved in Brookside and experienced firsthand how the miners organised themselves to fight for their rights. She filmed workers on the picket lines, at meetings of union groups and in their homes. Kopple does without any comments, and lets those involved on both sides speak out for themselves, lets veterans from the big strikes of the Thirties tell their stories and shows the miners undergoing medical examination. She lets statistics speak for themselves and observes how the struggle becomes ever more violent, as strike breakers arm themselves. She shows the courage, and above all the fear, of the workers, who are shot at night by paid provocateurs.

Kopple pays special attention to the solidarity and strength of the women of Brookside. The result of all this patience is a breathtaking film, doing without both pathos and false sentimentality. Kopple clearly takes the side of the strikers, but she spares nobody, yet diffames no one either. She lets her wealth of material speak for itself, and juxtaposes the euphemistic words of the mine owners with the real misery of the miners in rapid and uncompromising edits.


Documentary and feature film director and producer Barbara Kopple was born in 1946 in New York. She studied Clinical Psychology at Northeastern University. She became well known with Harlan County USA (1976) and American Dream (1990), both of which won Oscars. Kopple’s film The Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing (2006) can be seen in the school film programme of this year's International Women's Film Festival Dortmund I Cologne.

Barbara Kopple
Focus: Freedom