Harlan County: Documentary and Empathy

There are times when we experience or bear witness to injustices so great that we are compelled to move, to speak in protest against them. In July 1973, Eastover Mining Company—a subsidiary of Duke Power, one of the largest utility companies in the world—refused to sign the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) contract after the miners voted to unionize. In Harlan County, USA (1976), Barbara Kopple’s camera and sentiments stay close on the miners and their wives as they fight for their rights at Brookside Mine in Harlan County, Kentucky. The strike lasted 13 months and at times became violent.

We are not strangers to activism. In our own protests in Charlottesville last year, the question of representation and meaning, what’s at stake in the images, language, and monuments that surround us came to the forefront of our collective consciousness. Coincidentally, this concern of representation is one that is also central to documentary filmmaking. That is to say, when it comes to documentaries that take on institutionally marginalized subjects, the question of ethical representation seems unavoidable. You don’t have to look farther than Robert Flaherty’s paradigmatic Nanook of the North (1922) to see the deep roots of exploitation in the documentary tradition. Our contemporary capitalist context has given rise to art that exploits those experiencing poverty for public consumption, for ticket sales, and the documentary is no exception. But Kopple, when she was filming Harlan County, had neither institutional backing nor an imagined commercial audience. She had no money to make the movie, and it didn’t get a national theatrical release until after it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. Kopple was driven instead by the need to shed light on issues she found important.

Kopple’s empathetic intent reveals itself in the film’s content. Here, we see the filmmaker become amplifier before she is creator. Harlan County speaks through its subjects, or perhaps it is more fitting to say the subjects speak through the film. The strikers take up most of the screen time. They are rendered in close-up: a woman bathes her child in a pail, telling her they have to go to the picket line so one day they can have hot water and a bath tub. The quotidian, natural quality of this scene gives the feeling of something real and tender, particularly when juxtaposed with the neatly manufactured feeling of Duke Power representatives sitting behind a table of microphones, wearing impudent smiles as they evade answering the question of why the miners’ homes have no indoor plumbing. The portrait of the protesters is an intimate one. They sing songs that assert their solidarity, they share a cultural history specific to Appalachia, invigorated by lyrical expression. Women recount stories of grandfathers who died of black lung disease. A withered man with a raspy voice remembers the strikes of 1931—the strikes that earned the place its epithet, “Bloody Harlan.”

The empathy here, while mediated through Kopple’s camera, is still palpable. Our sense of the miners and their families is sophisticated, nuanced. They are not just sob stories on a screen, safely removed for our consumption. Rather, Kopple’s subjects have agency; they use what relatively little power they have to fight for their rights, their livelihoods. Women put aside differences and make impassioned speeches to rally each other, they lie on the ground in front of strike-breakers’ cars, the whole community occupies the picket line from the early hours of the morning. These are not the powerless victims; the people in this mining community are activists in the most platonic sense.

As a poet, it seems these days a single question has been following me around: what is the role of poetry, of art, in times like ours? Art is great, but what can it do? What will it change? I understand the impulse behind a question like this: in a country of “fake news” and confederate monuments, it becomes increasingly difficult to trust abstractions over more tangible actions. And I agree, action is important. That said, so are ideas. Which is to say, to place the value of a film, a poem, any work of art, solely in its direct social currency is too empirical. Ideas matter. As long as there are people marching in the streets for a cause, there will be people thinking, making movies, writing poems, painting murals about it. Kopple’s film is proof that there is value in empathy and ideas. Such documentaries, like all art, exist to advocate, to practice a vital kind of human empathy. There are complex ways in which they reflect, transform, and challenge our society, as well as our personal lives. They ask us to think, to feel, to imagine a life that could be different, better than before.

Harlan County, USA will be screened at Vinegar Hill Theatre, a few blocks down from Emancipation Park, on June 6th as a part of the Vinegar Hill Theatre ’76 series. The film will be followed by a discussion with Lori Shinseki and Paul Wagner.

By Helena Chung

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