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Her Generation 

In her celebrated documentaries, this year's DoubleTake Career Award winner, Barbara Kopple, critiques the American Dream

World-renowned "nonfiction filmmaker" Barbara Kopple will be in Durham during the DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival, running May 3 through May 6, to receive the festival's Career Award. Kopple's films are well known to documentary lovers. Harlan County, USA, for which she won an Oscar in 1977, plunged viewers into the heartbreaking but ultimately victorious struggle of Kentucky coal miners to unionize. American Dream, which garnered her a second Oscar in 1991, painted a starker yet no less human picture of the failed strike at the Hormel packing plant in Austin, Minn. Fallen Champ: The Mike Tyson Story startled audiences with rare and disturbing insights into the making and unmaking of a boxing hero. Wild Man Blues followed a kvetching Woody Allen and his new wife, Soon Yi Previn, as Allen toured Europe with his New Orleans-style jazz band. Kopple's most recent project, My Generation, will screen at the festival, along with American Dream and Conversations with Gregory Peck. The Independent reached her recently in New York.

The Independent: The Career Award at the DoubleTake festival recognizes at least one filmmaker who has made an important contribution to the documentary film genre. What do you think your important contribution is?

Kopple: I think that maybe my important contribution is being able to persevere and to do the work that I love over 20 years no matter what the obstacles. With some of the films I make, the conditions are very hard: Sometimes it's 60-below with the wind chill factor, and then there's also problems finding the funding.

Someone said that your unique accomplishment has been to "deliver cinema verité from its pretensions of objectivity." As a young filmmaker was this a conscious decision on your part, as a reaction to a prevailing aesthetic?

I think that it comes out of my storytelling abilities, because I never think of work in terms of "this is cinema verité" or "this is nonfiction." I just plunge in and do it. What's most important to me are the people and the characters, being able to show people things that they have never seen before, and to allow people's voices to be heard that maybe you've never heard before, and to take you on a wild, wondrous journey.

That is certainly true of your films from Harlan County, USA to Wild Man Blues. But in terms of your films dealing with activism ...

That's not really activism, it's the story of the people. It's a story in the coal fields, people struggling for their rights to have the union of their choice.

Activism is an artificial label, then?

Right, I agree.

Looking at Harlan County, USA, American Dream, Wild Man Blues and Fallen Champ, it seems, however, that there has been an evolution in your storytelling style. There seems less taking of sides and more "objectivity" now.

No, I don't think you are ever objective. Maybe you go into something with no agenda but no, I always feel deeply for the underdog and I try to let everybody's voice be heard. What I feel personally may be different than what I show in the film. In the film I want the audience to decide what they feel.

American Dream and Conversations with Gregory Peck are well known to local moviegoers, but very few people know about My Generation. Could you tell us about the project?

My Generation looks at the three Woodstocks. It looks at who we are today and who we were over the last 30 years. It's about youth coming together to listen to music that they love. It's set in '94 and '99, particularly '94. It's about the baby boomers who are now selling and merchandizing to the so-called Generations X and Y. In the boardroom scenes, for example, it looks at important decisions like how many condoms do you think will be sold and what ice cream should be the sponsor: "Ben & Jerry's is out, Hagen-Dazs is in, it's great ice cream." It looks at what's important, the dreams and hopes of youth. For me, really what it does is it says that we are basically all the same, that maybe the times are different but what we really want to do is get together and have a sense of community and listen to music that we love.

You are presently producing a film in The Hamptons?

It's going to be Memorial Day to Labor Day. The film is going to take about 10 or 15 people from all different walks of life--whether you are a Chinese cook, an artist or somebody who is going to The Hamptons who wants to launch a music career or, you know, a celebrity. It's going to look at people's hopes and dreams over that summer and see what happens to those people: Whether they realize their dreams or whether they are shattered, and also how all these people's lives intersect with each other over the course of the summer living in 26 miles of space.

What do you think of fiction filmmaking co-opting the use of the documentary format, in particular films in the last number of years, such as Tanner '88, JFK, Bob Roberts and most recently, The Blair Witch Project?

I think it's great. I think the world is big enough for all different kinds of techniques and ideas. However you feel as a director, as a filmmaker and as a storyteller, you want to be able to use whatever style you want for your story. I'm all for it. I'm for whatever gets the message across, and a feeling.

But in JFK, for example, the documentary format, because it is associated with "fact," was used to propagate a new "truth."

But it wasn't documentary: It had actors, and it had a script. What influenced me to make the kind of films I want to make was a film called The Battle of Algiers. That was done very much in a nonfiction style. I think that's fine. I think that people are very smart and are not duped. They are there to be entertained, they are there to be horrified, they are there to laugh, and whatever way you can get people to emote and to feel and to forget that there's a camera, that's wonderful.

When making Harlan Country, USA and American Dream, how do you think the presence of a camera affected the behavior of the strikers?

Well, we would always go on the picket lines whether we had film in our camera or not--in the morning because we didn't think that anybody would shoot people in living color--so we went there to protect everybody. But I think that people also forgot that the camera was there a lot of the time because they were having huge crises in their lives. I remember one morning, Lois Scott--the woman who took the gun out of her dress--she was saying, "Who is going to be on the picket line tomorrow?" And she said, "Are you going to be in it?" And I said, "Of course I am, I wouldn't miss it, but Lois, I'm the filmmaker. You're not even supposed to know that I am here." And she said, "But I have to write your name down." So I think that they just forget that you're there because what they are trying to do in their lives takes over.

Did you ever see a difference once the camera was removed?

No.

They simply forget that you are there?

They do. Because I was there all the time, just this funny-looking woman with headphones on, holding a mike, that just became my persona. But I think the gun thugs probably didn't use as much violence as they might have--they probably would have used more violence if we hadn't been on the picket line.

What film do you wish you could make that you've been unable to?

If you had asked me a while ago it would have been My Generation. I am looking forward to making a fiction film called Joe Glory, and I hope that will happen. I am also looking forward to making a film called In Loving Kindness, with Anne Bancroft. But if you had asked me two or three years ago, I would have said My Generation because it was so hard, I practically had to do it all myself.

More than six years in the making?

Yeah, yeah.

I thought there might have been funding behind that.

It started out that way and then Polygram--this is in '94--didn't even want to go through with the Woodstock Concert, but the only thing they could pull out of was the film. I started in February 1994, and the concert wasn't until August, and so two or three months later they decided they didn't want to do the film and they thought, of course, she has no money, she's just gonna stop. But I didn't.

They didn't know you.

Right.

On the flip side, are there any projects you've been involved in you wished you hadn't been?

No ... well, maybe. Maybe one.

Do you want to tell us about it?

[laughs] No.

There are going to be a lot of aspiring documentarians out there at the festival ...

We now call ourselves "nonfiction filmmakers."

Sorry, that just shows you how out of touch I am.

No, no, nobody knows that--you're just way ahead of everyone now.

I wonder what words of advice you would give to those starting out?

I think that if there is something that you really want to do and you feel it in your soul and in your bones, just start it and do it and there will be so many people who will come around you and help you, so you will never feel alone. So just go for it. Don't be afraid.

Did winning two Oscars make finding funding any easier?

No. It's always hard even for the most accomplished fiction filmmakers. Bob Altman has always had to struggle, and other people--you know when you are dealing with other people's money, it's not always easy, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it.

Wild Man Blues seemed in a certain way like a dream vacation project for a documentary filmmaker. Were there any hidden challenges in getting that one done?

No hidden challenges. It wasn't a dream vacation because when Woody was on we were on, and when Woody was off and relaxing we were on. We were working literally 16 hour days and I always wished that one night or one day he would say, "OK Barbara, just chill, enough," or, "Go do something else," so I could have gone out to dinner or done my laundry. But being the good filmmaker that I am I just kept going.

He seemed to really relish it.

A lot of the time he didn't even know that we were filming. I put wireless mikes on them and let them go.

It was like watching him in one of his own movies.

I know. Sometimes he knew I was filming but he often said those things on the spur of the moment.

So he is not a ham?

He is a ham! Yes, he is a ham. Sometimes I'd be doing the sound and I'd be doubled over with laughter because he'd be so funny.

Are there any films you're looking forward to seeing in particular at the DoubleTake Festival?

As many as I can. I mean there are so many showing that, you know, to pick one or two ... I just want to see as many as I can from veteran filmmakers as well as up and coming filmmakers. EndBlock

  • An interview with Barbara Kopple, this year's Career Award winner at the DoubleTake festival.

More by Matthijs E. Schoots

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