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The Making of Harlan County, U.S.A. : An Interview with Barbara Kopple

The Making of Harlan County, U.S.A. : An Interview with Barbara Kopple

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Published by IsaacSilver
From Radical America, Volume 11 Number 2 (March-April 1977)
From Radical America, Volume 11 Number 2 (March-April 1977)

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Published by: IsaacSilver on May 27, 2011
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11/05/2012

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The aking of
Harlan Couny, 
U.S.A.: trvw wt Brbr Kppl
Gail Peet
In
1973
miners at the Bookside mine in Harlan County. Kentucywent on strie after the mine owners refused to sign a contract with thenewly formed local of the United Mine Workers (UMWA)BarbaraKopple, a flmmaer who had been documenting the Miners for Democracmovement moved to Harlan to live with and film the miners and herfamilies during the struggle Their story is shown in her recentl eleasedfilm
Halan County
U
The flm is in color and runs
0
minutes It isdistributed by Cinema
5
Distribution Inc,
595
Madison Ave  New YrkNGail Pellet interviewed Barbara Kopple in February,
1977
for
Raicameia
G How  you e volve  flm  Harla CouyBI was orally hre by he Mers for Democracy a rafle moveme  he Ue Me Worers (UMWA) Bu heI oso volve w people he coal fels he mers aher famles h I wae o o  lo more ha mae a flmabou he Mers for Democrcy movemeo expla hs moveme s really ecessary o o over somehsory of he UMWA From he erly 30s Joh L Lews ra e
GAIL PELLET works  ado, vdo ad fm  Nw York.
33
 
nion as a dictatorship That dictatorship contined nder Tonole who was appointed president b Lewis in 963. rom the30s o 1968 there had never been an elecion.oles regime did lile organizing. The negotiated sweehearconracs. He conrolled the locals b appointing officials whoshared his poliics. o know coal mining is one of the mos dangeros indsries in this contr. et ole made health and safetdemands on he companies onl when absoltel foced o or example in 969 the armingon mine blew p and 78 men werekilled The mine had been inspeced 16 times before and had beenshown to be dangeros bt he coal operators js asked for moreexensions.Joseph Jockablonsk was he first g brave enogh o rnagains ole. That was in 1969. Then ablonsk and his wife anddaghter were mrdered and miners reall go angr The wanedleadership that cold resnd to he needs of the coal miners. o arankandfile movement developed the Miners for Democracand hree rankandfile miners emerged as leaders: ArnoldMillerMike Trbovich and Harr Parick. Miller had spent 26ears in the mines and fogh for the blacklng movemen. Trbovich foght for atonom at the local level And Patrick fogh forcompensation for widows and disabled minersPart of their platform was o organize he norganized. And soin 973 a he rookside mine in Harlan Kentck miners voedto become part of th MWA. This was a test case for he new reform movemen. Thats how Harlan began this time.  theresa histor in Harlan. Harlan Con came to be known as loodHarlan In he 30s the MWA nder ohn L Lewis came in. Dring he strike people were hrown ot of their homes b the com­panies. There were no strike benefis so people literall starved.The compan broght in gn thgs and scabs. One morning theminers went ino the hills and opened p on them. Miners andstrikebreakers were killed. The called it the batle of Evarts.John L. Lewis go ver scared and plled ot leaving the minersto their own destin. A nmber of miners spent 4 to 9 ears inprison. Later in he 1950s dring the period of mechanizationthosands of miners were nemploed. Thas when the MWAreall los its hold in the coal fields. In 1964 the ried again toorganize in Harlan Cont bt Ton Bole signed sweetheart contracs and i was jst as bad as before.The miners were getting $26 to work 8 10 or 12hor dasin he minesIt takes an hor o get from the beginning of he mineto the face where the actal work is being done and o woldnget paid for tha hor The safet conditions were errible. ppose o and I were working nder a roof and
I
heard a crack.I cold come ot bt the might sa to o: OK o have sixkidsoneed the work and the mone. okeep working nderthat roof." Workers were being divided like that And safet in­spectors were people who had come ot of the compan so the
 
company would take them to places they wanted them to see. Littleor nothing was done about violations There was no jb securityIfyou wanted to stike about something or if yu felt that something wasn't right, youd be fired automatically. The miners hadabsolutely no rights
G
But in the film we see Mille afte winning the UMWA pesidency on a reform platform compromise the right to stike.B: Right. People had felt him to represent a stong honest reform leadership that was really going to resnd to thei needs.Butyou see Miller change uring the couse of the film. The lastsection of the film includes the vote for a national coal contractIt was the first time in union history that the ines were able toratify their own contract. You see on a ank-andfile level what acontract can mean. Is it enough to have fivday vacations? Is thatreally enough time to get the coal dust ut of you lungs? But thenMiller compromised the miners' right to strike. The last part ofthe film says who you enemies are youve got to fight against thecoaloperators and the government In
195
a hundred and twentythousand miners went on wildcat strike and in the following yearthey struck again when coal operators violated grievance procedures. metimes people think that once you get a good l�ader youdont have to fight anymoe. Eveythings going to be taken cae of.Ofcourse we know thats not so and the miners know thats ntsoSo he fight is still continuing. And as the young miner says inthe film "Its got to be a fight that comes from below.Thatswhat the film is about
What in your own personal background led you to producingthis kind of film?BI grew up on a flower and vegetable farm in Shub Oak NewYork I grew up ith my grandparents my parents and my brotherhey were all leftliberals. I went to school in Boston and got inolved in the antiwar movement. Then I got nto film making doing sound andeditingI worked primarily on socialchange filmssuch as WINTER SOLDIER a lot of things for Bill Moyers Journalon televsion But I knew that I really wanted to do films thathad content that moved people forward For five years I had beenworking until three or four in the morning seven days a week forother people an I really wanted to do something that I cared aboutAs I strted to do HARLAN CO USA
•
I realized that nothingin the world was going to stop me from telling that story I dontthink of myself as a producer/director just soebody who knowshow to make films which is a way I can contribute to communicatin the litical thins I believe in To experience and learn butalso to bring that experience back and share it with othe peopleWe wanted a film that workers everywhere would be able to look
5

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