February 18, 2013

The greatest American documentary of all time now on Showtime

I was at a friend's place looking at the "On Demand" programs listed under Showtime and saw that they're currently offering Harlan County, USA. If I've ever seen a better documentary film, I can't think of what it is. I haven't watched it in a few years and it's impact didn't lessen on another viewing.

It's about a coal mine strike in the 70's but, as usual, the core issues remain the same. Coal companies are still trying to bust unions, refusing to take responsibility for accidents, and trying to avoid paying for health care and retirement.  And rural mining regions are still poor, as every region that bases their economy on coal mining always has been and always will be.

The Peabody family were building their first mansion on the outskirts of Chicago while Peabody Company miners were living in tents and shacks downstate. Unions made important gains over the years, but most of them are busted, and the exploitative nature of extracting industries hasn't changed. A coal based economy is a recipe for rural poverty, not an escape from it.

Anyway, the soundtrack makes brilliant use of traditional Appalachian music and miner songs. I gathered all the Nimrod Workman music I could find after the first time I watched Harlan. It includes this song, 42 Years

Like any great film, I took away new impressions after watching again. This time I thought more about the amazing, strong women Barbara Kopple caught in action. A couple of the more ornery citizens remind me of my grandmother and great-grandmother. I'm only a few generations removed from the coal mine, and one from the farm, so I guess it makes sense that I relate to the people in the film. Then again, maybe they're just relateable people, no matter what your background is.

You'll notice that the most stubbornly determined and outspoken people in the film are women. The same is true with the Illinois rural coal fights I've been involved in recently. The centers of the intellectual feminist movement may be in the urban northeast, but you'll get a real lesson about female empowerment if you ever organize in rural areas. I won't name any names in this post, but the women I'm thinking of know who they are.

If you haven't seen it yet, don't miss the chance. The Criterion Collection release has excellent unused footage and special features that are worth seeing, if you can find a copy.