Episode 2: Barbara Kopple

While making Harlan County, USA, a gun thug threatened to kill her.

When Barbara Kopple made the Oscar-winning documentary Harlan County USA, she was unproven as a director.

As a budding filmmaker living in New York City — she’d worked on other people’s films but hadn’t directed — Kopple was looking for a movie project. Then she heard about the Miners for Democracy Movement and a coal miner’s strike in Kentucky, and off she went.

In this episode, Kopple talks about her nervy confrontation with a company-paid, strike-busting "gun thug" and a situation that turned violent on the picket line. “They kicked the Nagra [recorder]," Kopple says. "I had a long fish pole with a mic and I was just swinging it back at them.”

Kopple touches on many other subject during our interview, including the opening and closing shots of Harlan County USA, how she begged her parents to send more 16mm film so she could keep shooting, standing on picket lines even if she had no film in the camera and the importance of staying with a story, no matter how long it takes.

THE KOPPLE FILE

• Oscars for Best Documentary Feature: Harlan County USA (1977) and American Dream (1991)

• National Film Registry: Harlan County USA (1976 completed, 1990 year inducted)

• Sundance Film Festival, Grand Jury Prize: American Dream (1991)

• Directors Guild of America, DGA Award: Homicide: Life on the Street (1993), Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson (1993), American Dream (1990)

Mourners at a murdered coal miner's funeral (above). Barbara Kopple examining 16 mm film (below). Photo courtesy of Cabin Creek Films.

Mourners at a murdered coal miner's funeral (above). Barbara Kopple examining 16 mm film (below). Photo courtesy of Cabin Creek Films.

In documentaries, you never know what you’re going to get. You think you have a certain idea, but you have to let that leave your mind. ... Then you’re going to be telling a story that’s real and has a sense of truthfulness.
— Barbara Kopple
A coal miner on the job. Photo courtesy of Cabin Creek Films.

A coal miner on the job. Photo courtesy of Cabin Creek Films.

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