Strike Memorialized In Criterion Documentary19 May, 2006 By: Jessica Wolf
Harlan County, Ky., is one of those pockets of America where time stands still in a town populated by coal miners and their families trying to eke out a dangerous living.
In 1973, director Barbara Kopple documented this town, its residents and the violent struggle that erupted when the miners of Harlan County went on a year-long strike against the Brookside Mine of the Eastover Mining Co. Her Oscar-winning Harlan County U.S.A. May 23 is getting a Criterion Collection special edition DVD release.
“This felt like a very important American film,” said Criterion DVD producer Johanna Schiller. “We felt like it was something that fit within the parameters of the collection.”
Schiller and her team spent hours digging through 300 boxes of film footage Kopple had donated to the University of Kentucky to develop an extensive making-of documentary for the DVD release.
They interviewed production crew members from the original filming, as well as Jerry Johnson, one of the miners in the film, and the daughter of Lois Scott, one of the town's most vocal activists on the side of the striking miners.
“What's so great about the film is that she really captured these amazing characters, and their story and their struggle really come through,” Schiller said.
Criterion's goal was to pay homage to the importance of this town's story and not make the extra features too much of a history lesson, she said. Viewers may be drawn most to the retrospective interviews with the people from Harlan County.
It was strange to be working on this disc over the past year when several highly publicized mining disasters were all over the news, Schiller said.
“It did make it all really seem that much more real and more present even today,” she said.
Director Kopple spent the better part of 1973-74 traveling back and forth from New York City to Kentucky when she made the film. The director provides a commentary track for the Criterion release.
Miner Johnson remembers the town and the miners opening their arms to the film crew. They used to stay at his home in Kentucky, not having a budget for a hotel.
“I was really glad they were there, and glad they were like they were,” Johnson said. “There's no secret about it; they were poor, just like us, and they had to buy film, too.”
He said that going through the filmmaking process with Kopple and her team 30 years ago was a learning experience.
“I have taught them a little something, but they taught me a lot too,” he said.
Johnson said he hopes the DVD and renewed interest in the story of his town will educate people about safety and energy issues that are still plaguing coal miners today.
Mining conditions are going backwards, he said.
“I've been thinking about my coal miners like my brothers who got killed in West Virginia — all coal miners, we are all brothers you see,” he said. “If they had had a union, they might still be alive.”
The DVD also includes a panel discussion filmed at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival with Kopple and Roger Ebert.
Criterion took the digitally restored film to the festival, where some miners from a local Utah mine participated in the screening.
“We actually found that when we were working on the project, a lot of the same issues are ongoing,” Schilling said. “The Utah miners were going through a very similar situation 30 years later.”