Harlan County, USA
The documentary form

by E. Ann Kaplan

from Jump Cut, no. 15, 1977, pp. 11-12
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 197, 2004

Recent film theory, spinning off from semiology and structuralism, has shows that film of all types, including documentary, ultimately is “fiction.” Documentaries have images structured in time and space in a series of patterns arranged according to the filmmaker’s view of the world or to the dominant codes through which a culture apprehends reality. Eileen McGarry argues that long before the filmmaker arrives,

Reality itself is already coded, first in the infrastructure of the social formation (human economic practice) and secondly by the superstructure of politics and ideology.”(1)

McGarry calls that “which exists and happens in front of the camera” the profilmic event. She claims that even in the case of nonfiction films, this event is coded. Even if filmmakers attempt not to control or encode the pro-filmic event, says McGarry,

“Certain decisions about reality are made: the choice of subject and the location of shooting (not to mention the preconceptions, no matter how minimal, of the film workers), the presence of the film workers and their equipment (no matter how unobtrusive), all participate in, control and encode the pro-filmic event within the context of the technology of cinema and the dominant ideology.”(2)

Several political films by women—JANIE'S JANIE, THE WOMAN'S FILM, I AM SOMEBODY and, recently, UNION MAIDS—need to be reexamined in light of McGarry’s ideas. Another one, HARLAN COUNTY, U.S.A., raises the issues directly. The film seems to move in two opposite directions at once. On the one hand, it is highly stylized and belongs in what we may loosely call a special “genre” of political films dealing with strikes and stemming most recently from SALT OF THE EARTH (although the tradition goes back to Vertov in Russia). On the other hand, the film is unusual in that, at certain moments, it breaks through codes of fiction to create a relation with actuality that sets it apart from other political films of its kind. On this second level, it is almost impossible to view the film as “a work of art”—something waiting out there for aesthetic or other kinds of “assessment.”

The energies, emotions, and political stance of both filmmakers and strikers are so unified and dominant that the film becomes a committed record of their experiences, an illustration of what they went through during a specific time period, rather than a completed “product” of any kind. HARLAN COUNTY, U.S.A. records a small slice of time in a long event. We are aware that there are happenings both before and after its making—that what we are seeing is part of a continuum, and it suggests more than it can show.

The problem with HARLAN COUNTY, I think, lies in the fact that it moves in these two extreme directions, although that movement is also what makes the film interesting. On some ways, it is very much like any other political documentary. The filmmakers interview people, intercut speeches by the management or union leaders, fill in intervening events, and interpret and comment on what is happening (largely through words on the screen). On this level, what McGarry says about coding and the shaping of “reality” by the filmmakers is true. HARLAN COUNTY, U.S.A. is no simple recording of “unmanipulated reality” or a reflection of life as it presents itself (3) but a highly structured argument about the strike and the union from the miners’ point of view.

When the structuring becomes extreme enough, the film differs little from a fictional reenactment of a political event, like SALT OF THE EARTH, which implicitly relies on realist conventions familiar from Hollywood movies while reordering the signs within those conventions.(4) The bosses are presented in hostile and sinister modes, like the “bad guys” in westerns and gangster films, while the mass of Mexican American miners are presented an the “good guys,” without being patronized as in a film like Ford’s GRAPES OF WRATH. The miners are the protagonists of SALT OF THE EARTH and are seen from their own point of view.

HARLAN COUNTY, U.S.A. sets up the conflict between the homes and the miners in a very similar way. The first section of the film traces the immediate history of the strike and shows how the Kentucky miners were first invoiced in democratizing the corrupt United Mine Workers Union, then headed by Tony Boyle. Once the union finally elected Arnold Miller, the miners asked their company, owned by the giant Duke Power, to sign a UMW contract, instead of one with the company union. When the company refused, the miners struck. This strike is the main event in the present as the movie goes along. The immediate history is inserted in flashbacks (sometimes disorienting since we are not sure what time span we are in). In contrast, the earlier history of the miners’ struggles is expressed through interviews with an old, retired couple (to whom the film periodically cuts) and through the powerful militant music of a Kentucky miners group that is on the soundtrack for much of the film.

The narrative of the strike itself follows a pattern much like that is SALT OF THE EARTH. The event in both films, after all, lends itself naturally to dramatization. There are picket lines, union meetings, confrontations with the intractable bosses and their henchmen, confrontations with the scabs being shipped in, scenes showing the miners’ flagging interest in the cause, and discussions of the appalling working conditions and dangers (here, black lung disease) that beset the men. Very similar in both films is the way that, once the injunction in served against the workers, the women decide to take over the picket lines. In HARLAN COUNTY, U.S.A. from this point on, as in SALT OF THE EARTH, women move to the center of the action. We see them at meetings supporting each other, or divided about how to proceed. We see strong, brave women whose dedication never flags and whose pain and suffering makes us weep and wonder how they can go on.

It is in these very scenes of the women’s naked pain and suffering that the film breaks through the fictional codes in a remarkable way. In comparison, the conventions used to express pain in SALT OF THE EARTH seen contrived. (For example, SALT OF THE EARTH has a scene where Ramon’s beating by the bosses’ henchmen is intercut with his wife’s painful childbirth.) We know that the women whom Kopple is filming are not acting. She managed to catch them exposing their pain. Evidently they trusted her enough to be relaxed in front of her camera.

At other times, however, when the emotion in not intense and we are simply being shown what is going on, the shots seem so familiar because of earlier strike films that they tend to draw our attention away from the uniqueness of this particular strike. One gets a sense of having been through all this before, of knowing how it will end, much as one “knows” is the regular commercial Hollywood genres.(5) On this level we begin to get carried away by the narrative structure and to expect the film to end at certain dramatic moments—during the funeral for a young man shot on the picket lime one morning, or when the miners finally win their right to have a union. We recall the victory at the end of SALT OF THE EARTH and half expect an equally satisfying ending in HARLAN COUNTY, USA.

Of course, the film does not end with either of these events. Here again we must recognize Kopple’s achievement in breaking through the codes. Narrative structuring is unavoidable to some degree. If it detracts momentarily from the filmmaker’s main goal in the film (to elicit emotional and political support for the miners and to expose their ruthless treatment by the company), the effect we feel from the film as a whole is one of being overwhelmed by the bravery and strength of the people in the face of their appalling situation in the mining community.

Kopple’s use of the camera is remarkable for conveying a sense of the here and now, especially in the scenes of the women’s meetings or in those of the picket lines when the miners were under attack and in danger. Instead of creating a barrier between subject and audience, of somehow “tampering with life itself,” as McGarry argues, at these moments the camera plunges us into the midst of the actuality of the event. This is particularly true in one early morning scene, when the miners on the picket line are expecting violence and have gone there with guns. Kopple and her crew are there—the dangers to them notwithstanding. A truculent bosses’ man drives up and asks Kopple for her press card. Kopple keeps her camera fixed on the man and begins to turn his question back to him, asking him for his papers. How does she know he’s got the authority to question her? It’s a beautiful moment, one that suddenly makes us recognize Kopple’s own presence. We understand the reality of the camera’s and Kopple’s being there that morning on that line together with the miners, willing and ready, along with them, to take what happens.

A second and similar example of such a moment is the time when the woman picketers confront the sheriff when he comes to arrest then. They begin to argue with him, trying to shame him because he’s playing the bosses game. We see him wavering, caught off guard, not knowing how to proceed since the women’s arguments have some truth. They are asking him to be a real human being and decide for himself what is the responsible thing to do. But he turns out to be a man who can only follow orders and function within a well-defined role. Kopple again catches something spontaneous that reveals exactly where people in authority are.

The total solidarity of the film workers with the miners’ cause makes HARLAN COUNTY, U.S.A. an unusual documentary—one that renders most of the statements about the reordering of “reality” inapplicable at some points, though they are true for much of the film. The film workers in no way stand apart from events, observing or recording them. There is no pretense of a “neutral” stance (as in most cinema verité), which is the kind McGarry is talking about in her comments about documentary. Kopple’s is an obviously involved camera, at least at these moments, a camera that reflects her own commitment to the people, their suffering, and their struggle. Because she experiences the struggle as if it were her own, she enables us to experience it in an unusually direct and moving way.

Because Kopple was there filming as things were happening, in an involved stance, the film could have no “ending” as in the more highly structured and conventional political documentaries. The funeral scene is painful because we are seeing real grief and loss, but the people have to go on, and so must the film. The vote to decide whether or not to accept unionization with the limits set by the bosses has no unambiguous and triumphant ending. For the vote was by no means unanimous, and the people had many misgivings about compromising the way they did. Kopple did in fact stop filming soon after the vote, not because the issues were resolved, but because she had to shut off her camera at some point. The film could have no proper “ending” because of its close links to the real events, which, of course, have no end as such. The miners are involved is a long struggle that has its roots in the past and presumably will continue long into the future. It is part of Kopple’s achievement that she conveys this fact to us clearly.

The remarkable press conference that followed the screening of HARLAN COUNTY, U.S.A. at Lincoln Center in October 1975 in itself reflected the status of the film as something other than an ordinary “art work.” The projectors went off, the lights came up, and onto the stage stepped the musical group we had heard during the film to continue playing in the flesh. Shortly afterwards, Kopple and her photographer came on stage, along with several of the strikers whom we had also just been watching in the film. The discussion that followed focused not at all on the film as a film but rather on the content, the issues it raised. People wanted to know what had happened since Kopple stopped filming. We learned that the most active strikers had been blacklisted, that scabs continued to be brought in, and that the Ku Klux Klan had begun a campaign to divide white and black workers. We also learned that one of the women’s husbands, who had been sick with black lung disease, had since died. The audience was urged to write to Senator Javits to revive legislation in connection with the disease and to help in any other way they could. Viewers left Lincoln Caster not thinking much about what sort of film experience they had had. Rather many viewers left mulling over the bravery and strength of these men and women, whose daily reality is a continuous struggle for ordinary rights, in a situation where the odds are stacked against then by a company that all but owns them.

The nature of the film experience was, of course, all-important in the end. For it was the presence of Kopple and her camera down there in Harlan County, Kentucky, that brought us close to the people and their cause. This happens in the unique moments in the film when the camera participates in events rather than trying to record them. The commitment and involvement of Kopple and her crew in what they were filming made such moments possible. And it was the immediate sense of the lived actuality of these moments that made clearer the use of conventions common to the political film in other sections. These sections, in contrast to the former, seem rather flat, too familiar, and automatic.

The moments of lived actuality make HARLAN COUNTY an unusual documentary, raising new problems of the relation between actuality and film, life and art. Perhaps this kind of documentary belongs in some category of its own, representing a series of screen images that complement lived experience rather than images that stand completely on their own, forming aesthetic patterns related to, yet quite distinct from, life. For the aim of the film is not to provide an aesthetic experience but rather to inform people about a specific political event and, if possible, inspire them, through the sympathy it elicits, to help further the miners cause.


1. Eileen McGarry, “Documentary Realism and Women’s Cinema,” Women and Film 2:7 (Summer, 1975), p. 50.

2. Ibid, p. 51.

3. Ibid, p. 53, McGarry quoting Stephen Mamber, Cinema Verite in America: Studies in Uncontrolled Documentary (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1974), p. 201.

4. I've argued this point in “Aspects of British Feminist Film Theory: A Critical Evaluation of Texts by Johnston and Cook,” Jump Cut, Nos. 12/13, December 1976), p. 52.

5. This is obviously a sophisticated kind of response and one that a person seeing the film without knowing about other political films would not necessarily have.