by Sam Rasnake
Here’s one of those friend-of-a-friend stories. In my college days, a friend showed me an old house in Roan Mountain, Tennessee, a house that shared a history, she said, with a young, New York City-would-be filmmaker Barbara Kopple. In my friend’s story the director worked and lived at the house while editing and shaping her film – a film I’d just seen on its initial release. I didn’t – and don’t – know the lines in this tale between truth, legend, and invention – the poet in me doesn’t worry about such things. What I do know – I was fascinated. The idea of the filmmaker hold up in a house off the beaten path in the Tennessee mountains near the North Carolina state line – a safe distance from the violent subject matter of her work, while she finishes her film Harlan County USA – is an image that has stayed with me. Kopple’s work is a brilliant document of a 1970s miners’ strike at Brookside Mine in Harlan County, Kentucky. The film, winning an Oscar for best documentary, is a great work of art – great, not because of any award, but great because of the truth in life it presents. This was Kopple’s first Oscar; she has since won a second. So much for “would-be”.
Harlan County is a living organism of a story, skillfully and honestly told by a cast of characters so real I feel I’ve known them all my life. During the making of the film, Kopple became committed to the people in the community – and they to her. It’s a powerful film, and certainly on my list of favorites.
One of my poems – “Which side are you on...” – originally published in FRiGG and later included in the collection Cinéma Vérité, attempts to connect – not with the film – with the house and the filmmaker at work. The title of the poem comes from a song by Florence Reece about the deadly 1930s confrontation in Harlan County between striking miners, strikebreakers, and security forces from the mining companies. Both Reece and the song appear in the film.
As a creative work, Harlan County is a story with a reality beyond truth, and the music as well as the voices throughout deliver. Unforgettable.