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March 01, 2009

HARLAN COUNTY, U.S.A. — CLASSIC FILM PICK

Harlan County U.S.A.One of the most scathing examples of cinema vérité documentaries ever made, Barbara Kopple’s "Harlan County, U.S.A." is a powerful exposé of the embattled history of coal miners in modern-day America. A troubled narrative of social oppression exerts itself through the particular unembellished prism of a group of striking coal miners in Harlan County, Kentucky in 1972.

The filmmakers spent a year-and-a-half living with the miners in order to tell their story. The emotionally loaded truths that Kopple and her skeleton crew capture are as indelible as anything in the hierarchy of cinema vérité reportage.

With elegant use of archival footage, Appalachian coal mining songs (such as “Which Side Are You On?”), and intimate footage from the picket lines and inside union meeting rooms, Barbara Kopple gives voice to the impoverished but steadfast miners and their wives. Families with nothing to lose, stand up for their rights against the greedy coalmine owners and the violent scabs they bring in to do the dangerous work of coal mining for $7-a-day.

Harlan County

Everything is drab and uncomfortable. Here is an updated depiction of where the events cataloged in John Sayles’s “Matewan,” led. Nothing much has changed in 50 years. Human life is dirt-cheap in Harlan County.

The film takes on an incidental feminist tone when union rabble-rouser Lois Scott incites the women around her to picket against the gun toting "company thugs" that threaten their lives on a daily basis. At one point company goons fire guns at the striking miners during a nighttime attack. Kopple and her cameraman Hart Perry are clearly in the crosshairs when they film an armed company bully driving by in his pickup truck, rifle in hand. Kopple’s footage led to the man’s arrest, but for how long?

“Harlan County, U.S.A.” is all the more poignant today, considering how much exponentially worse conditions have gotten for coal miners. How can this be possible?

The coalminers’ problems may not have gone away, but neither has Barbara Kopple’s essential filmic document of their plight. Here is that rare cinema experience that allows the viewer to feel as though he or she has walked in the shoes of the film’s exploited subjects. You can’t help but be infuriated at the way human beings were, and are being, treated in a country unironically known as the “Land of the Free.”

Harlan

Rated PG. 103 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

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