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2018 Outstanding Achievement Award: Barbara Kopple

“I like to tell compelling stories, to allow you inside of why people make decisions, and how average flesh and blood people rise to occasions, and are really strong, and just overcome so much. To let you see, as if you’re not watching a film, but almost as if you’re experiencing what they’re going through.”

For over 40 years, Barbara Kopple has been making work that immerses viewers in complex, rich and revelatory worlds delivered to us with incomparable artistry and, often, wrenching intimacy.

Access is a word bandied about a great deal in documentary, but access is never as simple as signing a release form. It has to do with the rare and cultivated talent of building sufficient trust so that your subject loses all guardedness and simply goes about their life.

The relationship between a director and her subject is intricate. It often involves a great deal of transference that, in a profound way, feels like love. This isn’t something that can be written up in documentary handbooks or condensed in lists of tips for the beginner filmmaker. It’s about being in the world, about modes of relating to others.

In the many interviews that Barbara Kopple has given throughout her storied career, she often refers to the fact that she loves her subjects. She meets Mariel Hemingway and observes, “We just fell in love with each other.” Speaking of the wives of miners in East Kentucky: “I loved them.” As Hart Perry, her frequent cinematographer, recalls: “They genuinely loved Barbara.”

What’s the nature of documentary love? Like all good relationships, documentary love starts with curiosity but grows into something magical: a deep embodiment of caring, recognition and connection with another. Intimacy distinguishes between an affair and a relationship as much as it does between television journalism and auteur documentary.

This quality of magical intimacy distinguishes all of Barbara Kopple’s work, beginning with Harlan County, USA in 1976 , which followed the brutal strike of mine workers in Kentucky against the Duke Power Company, who hired scabs and thugs with guns to intimidate and kill the nascent local union. Here were folks dying of black lung or catastrophic accidents, working under a near-feudal regime where mules were valued more than human lives, living with their families in shacks without running water—conditions that had not changed since the 1930s. Shot over the course of three years when the director was in her early twenties, with little funding and in the face of real danger, Harlan County, USA immediately established Kopple as a director of ferocious talent and relentless courage.

Looking at the film today, 40 years later, there are, of course, elements that date it: the syntax of handheld camera, the swish pans, the zooms, the low resolution of the 16mm images. But what survives and transcends these idiosyncratic features is the dramatically immersive quality of Kopple’s vérité camera. Spatially, the camera and crew are always on the miners’ side of the picket line. They are there as the strike winds on for 12 months. They are there when scabs attack and a miner is killed. And they are there to witness the charismatic Lois Scott rally her sisters while pulling a gun out of her blouse, vowing to fight fire with fire.

Kopple claims she learned everything about film as an assistant to pioneer American directors Albert and David Maysles who, in the 1960s and 70s, were at the centre of a crucial formal revolution in documentary. Shunning the pedagogical imperative of the Griersonian documentary tradition, with its sonorous male voice-over dictating meaning and directing viewers to preordained conclusions, the Maysles pioneered an observational style.

Aesthetically, vérité liberated documentary, but the movement always involved contradictory impulses. With its rhetoric of authenticity and its insistence on non-intervention, vérité can easily be assailed as apolitical. Kopple may have been tutored in vérité methods, but her films have always embodied her presence as an off-screen interlocutor, verbal jouster and compassionate listener.

Many of the films featured in this Hot Docs retrospective feature Kopple’s “fempower” documentaries, where the director brings to life the stories of powerful and charismatic women fighting for their truth. Shut Up and Sing, Miss Sharon Jones! and Running from Crazy are all about performers with cultivated public personas, but what really gets to us are the private moments when the mask slips and vulnerabilities are shared. This is where we acknowledge what is truly human about each other, and this is what Barbara Kopple’s films gift to us: her ferocious love of other people.

– Brenda Longfellow



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