Harlan County, USA Director: Barbara Kopple The film: Winner of the academy award for best documentary in 1977, Harlan County, USA follows a 13-month coalminers' strike that took place in Kentucky in the mid 1970s. The film grew from a smaller project that was to have been about a United Mine Workers' of America (UMWA) leadership election, but events led director Barbara Kopple to visit Harlan County and take up with the local mine workers (about 180 men) and their families. The strike was called because the mining company had refused to sign a contract with its employees ratifying their recent joining of the UMWA. Irrelevant as all this may sound today, Kopple's film remains one of the most powerful indictments of big business ever screened, and is still a powerfully unnerving document of small-town violence and corporate terrorism (for want of a better word). The scenario (think John Boorman's Deliverance) is not a pretty one. The Eastover Mining Company houses its employees in rude shacks with no indoor plumbing, and the local population dreams of one day upgrading to trailer-park status. Violent labour demonstrations in the area date back to the 30s, when the county became known as Bloody Harlan, and the rule of the gun now rivals the rule of law. When a miner's wife pulls a pistol from her brassiere and waves it around at a local wives meeting, we hear whoops of delight rather than intakes of breath. Understandable perhaps, since many had a heavy machine gun trained on them by local 'gun thugs' that morning at the picket line. Kopple, in her 20s at the time of filming, took an unashamedly one-sided standpoint as a filmmaker, living with the families and even giving them left-over footage to use as publicity and training material (and there are certainly some contrived scenes). But when you've taken a beating and received death threats from mine company hoods, it's hard to be objective. Bluegrass music and protest songs add to the subjective flavour of the film, and although laid on a little thick, the soundtrack does its job as well as the sympathetic lens. A fine and bravely made, if partial, landmark documentary, but definitely not one for the squeamish. The extras: Kopple won a second Oscar in 1991 as co-director of American Dream, a film about a strike by workers at a meat-packing plant, so you can see where she's coming from. During a panel discussion at last year's Sundance Film Festival (included on this new DVD), after she and critic Roger Ebert had massaged each others egos for some time, Kopple pulled a coalminer onto the stage for some festival cred. It's worth mentioning this here, because we learn that he was making about the same hourly wage last year as the Harlan County miners were in 1975. Kopple also provides a commentary for this DVD with editor Nancy Baker, and there's a 20-minute making-of documentary, which features some of the original characters. A few interesting out-takes are also included, along with an interview with bluegrass singer-songwriter Hazel Dickens, and an interview with like-minded director John Sayles (Matewan, Men With Guns).