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Harlan County USA 

Barbara Kopple

Harlan County USA
Directed by: Barbara Kopple
Harlan County USA is one of the finest American documentaries ever. The picture chronicles a coal miner’s strike in a small Kentucky town, capturing the pain of overworked, under-paid labourers struggling to keep what’s theirs while fighting with strikebreakers, police and company-hired henchmen. Documenting the 13 months of the strike, Kopple has an amazing amount of access to the families, showing the struggle of labour workers fighting corrupt unions, an uncaring corporation and the poverty that accompanies the work. These hard-working people still live in shacks without indoor plumbing; they lack job security and have very few safety options in the mines. Kopple doesn’t present an objective view—she obviously sides with the workers—but it is hard to feel for the corporation that tries break down employees when they try to join a union (Harlan County also offers insight into coal mining communities and families in Nova Scotia). Scored by legendary forces such as Hazel Dickens, Merle Travis and Sarah Gunning, the film oozes Americana. The Criterion release has a remastered print, a making-of documentary and interviews with Kopple, Hazel Dickens and John Sayles, whose Matewan chronicles coal miners’ union struggles in the 1920s.
—Trevor MacLaren

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