Unsung Auteurs: Barbara Kopple

December 23, 2021
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: hard charging leftist social activist and pioneering documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple.

“I’ve always been interested in how people think, and how they react to challenges in their lives,” Barbara Kopple told Indiewire in 2006. “I’m interested in what makes people tick. I’ve also always been passionate about social issues and causes, and I wanted to make films that addressed important issues in very human terms. Over the years, my vision has evolved and has come to include things that I probably never would have guessed I’d be filming, like Woody Allen’s jazz band for Wild Man Blues, or Mike Tyson for Fallen Champ. I still have that same drive and determination, the same curiosity and passion for filmmaking that I did when I first started. Every film brings with it unique challenges and experiences, and I approach every one with the same enthusiasm.”

In the pantheon of American documentary filmmakers, Barbra Kopple is an essential and influential figure, standing tall alongside the likes of Frederick Wiseman, Albert & David Maysles, Peter Davis, Errol Morris, Emile De Antonio, Michael Moore, and Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky. And while she has received much acclaim and shelf-loads of awards, Barbara Kopple still doesn’t quite receive the credit and praise that she so richly deserves. Her place in the American film industry is utterly essential, and she should be regarded and spoken of as such.

Barbara Kopple

Though many foolishly and pointlessly argue that it is the job of a documentarian to remain neutral and objective in their filmmaking, Barbara Kopple’s view has always been a distinctly leftist and humanist one, with the filmmaker without fail on the side of the underdog, and constantly suspicious of monolithic institutions, be they corporations, the US military, the American government, or indeed the more conservative forces at work within the American populace itself. Her documentaries characteristically speak powerfully and eloquently of the struggle of the individual against an often greater might, and as such make Barbara Kopple a quiet, constant, and incisive voice of dissent on the American filmmaking scene.

Born in 1946 and raised in Scarsdale, New York, Kopple graduated from Northeastern University with a degree in psychology. Armed with experience in filming clinical studies, she began her career assisting documentary filmmakers as an editor, sound recordist and camera operator, observing and soaking up the techniques that she would soon apply to her own work. “One of the first films that I worked on was Hearts And Minds, Peter Davis’ chronicle of the Vietnam War,” Kopple told Indiewire. “I recorded sound on a shoot with the parents of a soldier who had recently been killed in the war. These brave parents brought us into their home, and throughout the shoot, I could feel the great sadness and loss that they were experiencing. I also felt the excitement that comes with knowing that you are telling an important story. The film was one of the first documentaries to get wide theatrical distribution, and it influenced the entire national debate about the war. That was a great experience, and it inspired me to keep working in documentary film.”

Barbara Kopple while shooting Harlan County USA.

Kopple made her uncredited big screen debut with the watershed 1972 documentary, Winter Soldier. In this gripping, powerful and utterly haunting time capsule, Vietnam War veterans give stark, anguished and quietly horrific testimony of the war crimes and atrocities that they committed during the conflict. Though not singularly credited, Kopple was a member of The Winter Soldier Collective, the group that created the landmark film. A searing work of political power, Winter Soldier remains just as challenging and heartbreaking today.

Kopple made her official directorial debut with Harlan County USA, which chronicles the bitter and violent struggle between coal miners and management in Appalachian Kentucky.. The director embedded herself within the miners’ community, and created one of the finest cinematic portraits of a union conflict in the history of film. It would also mark the first of many documentaries on the subject for Kopple. Humanist and highly political, Harlan County USA formed the blueprint for Kopple’s often controversial career.

A scene from American Dream.

Harlan County USA’s Oscar win for Best Feature Documentary quickly established Kopple as a major force in American documentary filmmaking, and when she picked up her second Oscar for American Dream in 1991, her importance was even further enforced. This film captures the conflict and human drama that unfolds during a six-month strike at Hormel in Austin, Minnesota, in 1985-86, when the local union, P-9 of the Food And Commercial Workers, overwhelmingly rejects a contract offer with a $2/hour wage cut. “The stories of these incredible people – the way that they put it all on the line for what they believed in – had a profound effect on me, and they continue to inspire me today,” Kopple has said of her two Oscar winners. “And in the end, the films found audiences and won Academy Awards. Those are the films and experiences that mean the most to me, and that had the greatest impact on me as a person.”

Two of Kopple’s finest films, however, deal with the world of entertainment. In the wonderfully inspiring A Conversation With Gregory Peck, Kopple provides the ultimate cinematic portrait of actor and noted humanitarian Gregory Peck, one of the most noble, charismatic and magnetic performers in the history of Hollywood. Intimate and revealing, this is much, much more than just your standard star bio piece. 2006’s The Dixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing, meanwhile, expertly walks that fine line where entertainment and politics sometimes overlap. “Just so you know,” The Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines told a London concert audience in 2003, “we’re ashamed that The President of the United States is from Texas.” This fascinating and casually cutting documentary chronicles the extraordinary fallout from that single incendiary remark, as country music group The Dixie Chicks lose a large chunk of their conservative heartland audience, but gain a new kind of cred in the process, after their public slam of President George W. Bush.

Barbara Kopple at work.

When combined with the rich and rewarding collection of documentaries that Kopple has made for film and television since the seventies – on daring topics such as women’s human rights issues (Defending Our Daughters); female war correspondents in Iraq (Bearing Witness); children with AIDS (Friends For Life: Living With AIDS); the legacy of Woodstock (My Generation); drug addiction in the workplace (Steamfitters Local Union 638); and the place of guns in US culture (Gun Fight) – they create a body of work that would be the envy of any documentary filmmaker. And that should be screamed from the rooftops, rather than quietly whispered.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs John D. Hancock, Sara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.


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