Criterion Sunday 334: Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)

In covering a miner’s strike in western Kentucky in the early-1970s, Barbara Kopple has shown us a side of America that rarely gets seen on-screen. Sure we’re all familiar with stereotypes of yokels from the Appalachians, but this film is about the work — coal mining, in this case — and the dangers of that work, the threats from the company owners, the meagre amount of pay and the terrible conditions of both the workplace and these people’s everyday lives. It never condescends to its subjects, and it’s firmly on the side of the strikers as they are aggressively confronted by strike-breakers, gun-toting ruffians who ride around in their pick-up trucks scarcely concealing the contempt and anger they have, and the force they’re willing to deploy to get their way. The police, too, are very much on the companies’ side, so we see the unequal force but also the vehemence of the strikers — and, notably, the women who are married to the miners, whose support is as strong if not stronger than their partners. From this tumult a number of characters start to become prominent, not least Lois Wood who keeps a gun in her bra and argues on behalf of confronting the violence they’re shown with their own violent resistance (she doesn’t quite get her way on that, mind).

Kopple contextualises the strikes with a sidebar on union politics (her original documentary subject before this one took over), notably the assassination of Jock Yablonski by the then-leader of the miners’ union in 1969, and the subsequent trial (shades of Harvey Weinstein as we see this previously vital man being wheeled into court as he performs being an invalid). Testimonies from those supporting the strike also recall the bloody 1930s when the so-called “Harlan County War” raged in a series of strikes that inspired a rich heritage of folk music, some of which we see performed (such as “Whose Side Are You On?” by Florence Reece, an old lady by the 1970s, but no less passionate about the union).

In short, it’s just great to see the urgent and heartfelt engagement with labour rights that subsequent decades of right-wing rule have since undermined so entirely. Of course, even by the end of this film it feels like so much is unresolved and will continue, as indeed I imagine it continues now, both here and on countless other fronts around the world, but the rights of the poorest in society should never be up for debate, and it seems sometimes as if it is constantly necessary to take a stand to protect them.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is The Making of ‘Harlan County U.S.A.’, a short documentary made for this release, in which Kopple and her producer and cinematographers reflect on the filming, and the dangers they faced in covering this story. There are also some interviews from a miner and one of the women shown in the film (the daughter of the film’s most interesting character, Lois Wood), though the intervening years and the very poor living conditions of the miners suggest that many of the main participants in the original documentary have long since passed. It’s fascinating of course to see how the film came together, and to get a sense of what we didn’t see in the telling of this story.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Barbara Kopple; Cinematographers Kevin Keating, Hart Perry and Tom Hurwitz; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 11 July 2020.

파업전야 Paeopjeonya (The Night Before the Strike, 1990)

An important battlefield for resistance, aside from in politics and on the streets, is of course the workplace, and trade unions have a strong role to play in that story. One such is this oppositional work made in South Korea against the background of the Gwangju Uprising, an expression of popular discontent which was brutally repressed in 1980 and led to all kind of fallout during the subsequent decade. It was written, shot and directed by a large roster of activist filmmakers, working largely under the radar of major institutions, and so was only restored very recently.


This Korean film was made in the late-80s, filmed (as I understand it) at a factory which had been occupied by striking workers and using a cast which included a lot of these workers in minor roles. Filmed on 16mm it feels like it has a documentary quality at times, akin to some of the low-budget TV plays being made in the UK at the time which dealt with working-class and working issues in a way that wasn’t exploitative or condescending (itself rather rare in our modern media climate). The main character here, for audience purposes, is Han-su, who sort of watches from the sidelines as his workplace (a metal-working factory) is radicalised thanks to the small-mindedness of the bosses coming into conflict with those who are trying to get a union off the ground. His long face and sullen demeanour conveys his confusion at what’s happening, as he slowly gets up to speed on why unionisation makes sense to protect his job. There’s a nice scene as various people who have been drafted in by management to protect the plant against these unionising workers (who are all swiftly laid off when their plans comes to management’s attention) all find out they’ve been made the same promises. For the most part, though, this isn’t a strident sloganising or propagandistic film, but rather a small-scale drama set amongst these workers that unfolds gradually. The director spoke on stage after the film about how the collective’s first film a few years earlier had been criticised by those whom it had been about, and how that meant they wanted to work more closely with the subjects to find a way of presenting their struggles sympathetically. This they did, to the extent that the film was officially banned and had to find its audience via non-cinematic screenings (which probably makes more sense given the content) and has only now been restored.

The Night Before the Strike film posterCREDITS
Directors Lee Eun 이은, Chang Yong-hyun 장윤현, Jang Dong-hong 장동홍 and Lee Jae-gu 이재구; Writers Kong Su-chang 공수창, Kim Eun-chae 김은채 and Min Kyeong-cheol 민경철; Cinematographers Kim Jae-hong 김재홍, Oh Cheng-ok 오정옥 and Lee Chang-jun 이창준; Starring Go Dong-eop 고동업, Im Yeong-gu 임영구; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 3 November 2019.

LFF 2019 Day Seven: The Perfect Candidate and Made in Bangladesh (both 2019)

Day seven, aside from being my birthday, was a day of just two films, both of which were fairly decent as films go, if rather earnest, but both of which shone a light on their respective countries in quite revealing ways. Being directed by women, they had lessons particularly about the role and status of women in Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Seven: The Perfect Candidate and Made in Bangladesh (both 2019)”

Two 2017 Lebanese Documentaries by Women: Panoptic and A Feeling Greater Than Love

Lebanon is one of the most stable countries in the Middle East (although it certainly hasn’t always been that way) and one of the most politically progressive. It is a country with a wide range of religious practices and ways of living, despite its small size, and it’s perhaps no surprise that a number of women have been involved in filmmaking in the country (for example, Jocelyn Saab, who recently died, was a pioneer back in the 1970s). Lebanon’s troubled recent history forms the basis of the two documentaries I review below, both directed by women, and both made in 2017.

Continue reading “Two 2017 Lebanese Documentaries by Women: Panoptic and A Feeling Greater Than Love”

Pride (2014)

It’s easy to be dismissive of a certain strand of emotionally-manipulative feel-good films about small communities resisting state oppression, or maybe it’s just easy for me. I can be cynical. Pride recalls similar British films of the recent past, set in the same milieu (miners fighting for their lives and livelihood against the policies of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party), like Brassed Off (1996) and to a certain extent The Full Monty (1998). Still, it does the whole thing every bit as well as those films did, and further frames it within the (largely metropolitan) struggles for gay rights during the same era, a struggle marked in some measure by the scourge of AIDS and the Thatcher government’s almost dismissive response to it. (I was but a young lad in the 1980s, but I still remember the bleak finality of their TV ads about AIDS.) You could argue there’s a bit of rose tinting involved in taking two narratives permeated with real pain, death and indignity, and crafting something heartwarming and feel-good out of it. Sure, there’s a nod at the beginning to the unlikeliness of the (drawn from real-life) conjunction of two struggles in the form of Mark Ashton’s Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) activist group, who collect money to help the embattled mining community. When they have their first meeting in London’s Gay’s the Word bookshop (still there, pleasingly), one man angrily denounces the way he’d been beaten up by miners when he was younger, stalking out of the shop and taking most of the rest with him. However, such unease is quickly smoothed over as Ashton (played likeably by Ben Schnetzer) finds a Welsh mining community who are willing to accept donations from the LGSM, and there follows a wary yet rather delightful rapprochement between the two very different camps, ably helped by wiser heads amongst the Welsh (including the very much not-Welsh actors Paddy Considine, Imelda Staunton and Bill Nighy). And yet, whatever reservations one may have about the way things unfold, it has an irresistible charm, by turns funny, sweet and heartbreakingly poignant. It’s also an unapologetic flag-waver for the union movement, bookending the film with rousing pro-union anthems. Most surprisingly, the events of the film are all drawn from real life, so the film’s title is quite apt: it makes one proud, and not a little bit teary.

Pride film posterCREDITS
Director Matthew Warchus; Writer Stephen Beresford; Cinematographer Tat Radcliffe; Starring Ben Schnetzer, George MacKay, Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Paddy Considine; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Rio, London, Friday 12 September 2014.

Wałęsa: Człowiek z nadziei (Wałęsa: Man of Hope, 2013)

I’m not sure how many biopics there are about trade unionists, but I’m willing to bet there aren’t many. Then again, Poland’s Lech Wałęsa was a particularly famous one, one that even the increasingly conservative Western governments of the era could embrace, for he was a pivotal figure in the collapse of Eastern European Communism in the 1980s. He later became a prominent figure in the post-Communist Polish government, but this film is the story of his union days and ends triumphantly in Washington DC. It’s a film that to some extent deals with the movement he led, Solidarność (Solidarity), but mostly it’s about the man himself.

Director Andrzej Wajda made his first feature in 1954, making him rather a veteran filmmaker and giving him an historical perspective on the events that younger filmmakers might lack; indeed, he made a couple of similarly-titled films during the era the film depicts — Człowiek z marmuru (Man of Marble, 1976) and Człowiek z żelaza (Man of Iron, 1981). For this one, he has co-opted a lot of the textures of archival film, in order to more seamlessly blend in period footage. There’s a lot of handheld camerawork, full of fuzzy out-of-focus shots, blurred framing and occasional lapses into black-and-white stock, giving a lot of the film the quality of a newsreel. This also ensures an up-close look at the man, played with wonderful conviction by Robert Więckiewicz. There are massed crowd scenes and group meetings, but for the most part this is Wałęsa at home with his wife (a beatific Agnieszka Grochowska) or in prison, being pressed by government interrogators (Zbigniew Zamachowski being only the most prominent of these).

It would be difficult to really convey in any film what is a very slow-moving struggle that took up almost two entire decades. Big events are depicted, like the 1980 strike originating at the Gdańsk shipyards which paralysed the country, and with such grand scenes it can be difficult to grasp their national importance (except for a few characters arriving to tell Lech what’s happening outside the shipyard’s walls). Instead it’s those periodic interrogations — the subtle movement of time tracking Wałęsa’s months spent in interment, putting on weight away from his family — that move the story forward. Wałęsa shows dogged resistance to the government, refusing to submit with a self-assured cockiness that he retains in a framing interview with journalist Oriana Fallaci.

It’s a film that seems to have rather slipped through into distribution in this country and it will probably disappear from cinemas rather quickly, but as a portrait of an era and of a defining figure in European history, it’s well worth watching. It also shows that even nearing his 90th birthday, Wajda is no slouch as a director.

Wałęsa: Man of Hope film posterCREDITS
Director Andrzej Wajda; Writer Janusz Głowacki; Cinematographer Paweł Edelman; Starring Robert Więckiewicz, Agnieszka Grochowska, Zbigniew Zamachowski; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Monday 21 October 2013.