Monday, October 21, 2013

Guest Post: Harlan USA by Sam Rasnake

(Note: This is the first of what I plan to be four guest posts over the course of the next month or so.  I hope you enjoy.)

Harlan USA
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.

Hazel Dickens provided music for the soundtrack, and her selections – her own songs and the works of others – are a perfect fit for Kopple’s film.  I’m taken by the voice and story of Nimrod Workman at the very beginning.

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.

1 comment:

  1. Really enjoyed this guest post, Sheldon, and the excerpt from the film that Sam included. I like the way this short piece flows so casually in its introduction to the serious idea of the line between truth, legend and invention. A new insight into the poet and his thoughts.

    Neato idea for your guest slots! Will look forward to more!


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