From the coal mines of Kentucky to the war-ravaged Bosnian countryside, Barbara Kopple documents people struggling to achieve rights and respect in the world.
A pioneer in the genre, Kopple has remained on the forefront of a precarious profession. As a documentary filmmaker, Kopple works under strained conditions, without actors, without scripts, and on notoriously low budgets. She thrives on these challenges. Growing up in the comfortable New York suburb of Scarsdale, Kopple commented, “I was made to feel there was nothing I couldn’t do in my life.”
Kopple began college in rural West Virginia, but earned her real education at the nearby Cabin Creek “holler.” “[Cabin Creek] was a place that had such an impact on me that I wanted to make films about people you wouldn’t ordinarily hear about,” Kopple admits. “It was the poorest of the poor, a place where young girls are prostitutes at 12 and 13 years old, where they have no indoor plumbing, where everyone’s struggling to survive.” When she returned to the Northeast, Kopple got a scut-level job with filmmakers Albert and David Mayles, creators of the concert–film noir classic Gimme Shelter (1970). At that time, documentary filmmaking was being revolutionized by the advent of the handheld camera and portable sound equipment. Kopple used these new tools in developing her signature “fly-on-the-wall” style.
Known for her ability to tackle tough social issues, Kopple began her career in rural Kentucky, filming exploited coal miners who were on strike in an effort to join a union. Early one morning, Kopple and the picketers were attacked by strike-breakers. “They started beating on everybody. They knocked Barbara down and were kicking her, and she was screaming,” describes Kevin Keating, her chief cinematographer. “Next day, Kopple was back, filming again.” Her tenacity was rewarded when Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976) won the 1977 Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary. In 1991, Kopple received a second Oscar for American Dream (1990), which explored the human cost of the rapid economic decline of America’s industrial heartland.
Throughout her films, Kopple’s knack for being unobtrusive has allowed her to expose intimate moments between friends and foes. In Wild Man Blues (1997), a film about Woody Allen’s tour of Europe with his jazz band, Kopple provided an up-close and personal portrayal of Allen and his relationship with his new wife, Soon Yi Previn.
Kopple’s documentary for Defending Our Daughters: The Rights of Women in the World (1998) uses personal narratives to describe the mistreatment of women in other countries, from the use of rape as a weapon of war in Bosnia to the ritual of female circumcision practiced on 130 million African women.
Excerpt from A Conversation with Barbara Kopple (1998)
“I was told if I was ever caught alone I would be killed. We were machine-gunned with semiautomatic carbines with tracer bullets.” This is two-time Academy Award–winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple describing the experience of making her first film, Harlan County, U.S.A.
For just over two decades, Barbara Kopple has been creating an impressive body of work—thought-provoking and passionately felt. What sets her apart from other great documentarians is a novelist’s instinct for storytelling and deft character sketches. Kopple says of her process, “It’s all about communication, and it’s all about stories, and it’s all about trying to take you somewhere that possibly you haven’t been before.”
And what about gender issues and being a woman director, a distinction that is still all too rare? Kopple states: “Interestingly enough, most of my films are about men. I sort of feel as if I know women pretty well . . . The huge mystery for me is men, so I constantly want to keep making films that deal with men and male issues, trying to have some sort of understanding of who these beings are.” And about directing: “Being a woman has helped me a lot—for example in Tyson (Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson). If I was a guy, I’d have to really understand boxing and ask all these macho questions, but being a woman I don’t have to prove anything. I can ask any questions I want and people will answer me. It’s made things a lot easier for me.”
Kopple has a long history of doing narrative as well as documentary film . . . When asked to describe the difference between making fiction and nonfiction films, she said: “In fiction you know where you’re going. In nonfiction life takes over and you just have to be smart enough and fast enough to go with it, because real life doesn’t repeat itself.”
The power of the collective experience is a frequent theme in her work—unions and the labor movement, the Woodstock legacy. She describes her own work in this way: “The magic for me in making a film and then having it shown is that suddenly the lights go out and onto the screen come these images, and there are people there who are probably very different from one another and don’t know one another, but what you get from that moment is a real collective experience: people experiencing something together for the first time that allows them to communicate.”
What about Kopple’s vision for the future? She puts it this way: “We’re a country now that really wants to know things. Video cameras are so accessible. We’re going to be able to energize and cross-culturalize each other’s lives, and possibly we’re not going to be so distant from one another.”
The Hamptons Project (2002)
In the Boom Boom Room (2000)
Defending Our Daughters (1998)
Homicide, Life on the Streets (two television episodes, 1997)
Wild Man Blues (1997)
Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson (1993)
American Dream (1990)
Keeping On (1977)
Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976)