Barbara Kopple spent much of her twenties living among desperate Appalachian miners, documenting their bloody fight to unionize in a world of pickup trucks, shotguns, and brutally hard work. Her resulting film, Harlan County, USA, won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 1976 and helped invent the modern doc.
Her latest film, Gumbo Coalition, continues to tell stories of the forgotten and ignored — from prisoners to undocumented families, through the eyes of National Urban League leader Marc Morial and UnidosUS leader Janet Murguía. But the landscape has changed.
Documentaries are more popular than ever before, and the fight for equality and workers rights is, at least on the surface, less lonely. Almost every major corporation professes to be on board.
With two Oscars — her second was in 1991 for American Dream, about a strike against Hormel Foods — Kopple has establishment respect and recognition. She is such a documentary filmmaking legend that she even earned a namecheck from The Simpsons (proudly posted on her production company’s website.)
“It’s totally changed since the very beginning, when I started, when people would say, ‘Why does a little girl like you want to make films like this?'” she says. “And documentaries were thought of to be very boring.”
Which doesn’t mean things are easy.
“Still, I hardly ever have much money to do films,” Barbara Kopple says in the latest MovieMaker podcast, which you can hear on Apple, wherever you get your podcasts, or right here on Spotify:
Has it gotten at all easier?
“A little bit easier,” she says. “I mean, if I apply for grants, I don’t get them. Because they think, ‘Oh, well, she doesn’t need it. And that started right after Harlan County. So it’s tough. … The biggest challenge for me in making a film is is raising money and being able to keep going and figuring out how to keep going.”
She notes that one of the biggest problems for all documentary filmmakers is distribution. Technology has made filmmaking easier in many regards, but even in the recent documentary boom, it was hard to stand out and find a releasing company that would share your film with the world. And the documentary boom of recent years has retracted.
But Kopple has stayed true to a filmmaking approach that has always served her well, since she started off helping the Maysles brothers with their groundbreaking documentaries Salesman (1960) and Gimme Shelter (1970): She embraces the cinema vérité style of blending in and letting her subjects talk, with everything on the record.
Not that she disagrees with other approaches.
“People need to express themselves as they see it,” she says. “Michael Moore’s in his films, and I try to not be in my films. Sometimes you’ll hear my little voice. But I think all of it’s important, and all of it is part of our culture and our history. And I don’t put that down at all.”
Barbara Kopple and Cinema Vérité
Her always-on-the-record, fly-on-the-wall approach is the same, she says, whether she’s covering coal miners or celebrities. She refuses to be moderated or managed by publicists, even when working with the likes of Mike Tyson (the focus of her 1993 film Fallen Champ), Woody Allen (featured in her 1997 film Wild Man Blues), and the Dixie Chicks (2006’s Shut Up and Sing).
“I don’t do it unless I get total access, and I don’t have all these people telling me what to do. The person who I’m filming has to want to be able to tell their story,” she says. “And, you know, Woody Allen, for example, was in very uncomfortable situations.”
Wild Man Blues follows Allen and his jazz band around Europe, and provides a fascinating, contemporaneous look at Allen’s life in the years immediately after the custody dispute with Mia Farrow in which she accused him of molesting their daughter, Dylan. Kopple had him mic’d at almost all times — even during his private dinners with his partner, Soon-Yi Previn.
“He knew all the really good restaurants in Europe. And I always put a wireless mic on the characters. And so I was listening. They were at one table, we were at another table: ‘Okay, he’s having the flounder,’ I would tell everybody at the table.”
Gumbo Coalition captures more intimate moments, like an exchange between prisoners taking part in a program called Save Our Sons to help them rebuild their lives after serving their sentences, and a UnidosUS gathering where a woman named Rose Escobar recounts immigration officials handcuffing her husband under a Trump administration directive.
She and her small crew were able to blend in because her subjects want her there, and trust her not to present them out of context, she says.
“This is what matters,” Kopple says. “They care about getting their story out, and that’s all that matters.”
Of course, another thing that’s changed since her beginnings is that more people have seen more documentaries.
“It’s harder because to blend in, because people are more media savvy than they were when I started,” she says. “But we try to make ourselves as invisible as we possibly can.”
Gumbo Coalition is at the Sarasota Film Festival, and plays again this Sunday.
Main image: Janet Murguía of UnidosUS and Marc Morial of the National Urban League go door-to-door in the Gumbo Coalition by Barbara Kopple.