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Premieres & Events

Kopple's American Dream Closes Out Stranger Than Fiction

At first, I thought people weren't as excited as I was to hear Barbara Kopple talk about her Oscar-winning documentary American Dream: I got to IFC Center only a half-hour early for the event, which included a screening and a Q&A, and was surprised to find that I was the first to arrive. It was a big difference from the night before, when I showed up to the Darren Aronofsky event nearly an hour early and found the Soho Apple Store already packed.


(L-R) Stranger than Fiction series programmer Thom Powers hosts filmmaker Barbara Kopple at Tuesday's screening of American Dream (Photo: Christopher Campbell)

Slowly, though, the auditorium did fill up, and I was glad to see that others can appreciate a great 15-year-old nonfiction film when there are so many other choices in this city. Screened as the final installment of this season's Stranger Than Fiction documentary series (it resumes next spring), the film is a well-balanced, mostly objective look at the striking workers of a Hormel meat-packing plant in the mid-1980s. It is her second film about a strike (the first being her other Oscar-winner, 1976's Harlan County, U.S.A.), and following the screening she explained her reason for somewhat repeating herself.

"I just feel that these people are the salt of the Earth." Kopple told the audience. "They've just got so much beauty and so much courage and so much integrity. It was hard to stay away from them. And plus, when their lives are in crisis, they're willing to risk everything they have for what they believe in. So, that just makes a phenomenal story, and it's also a role model for me to look at these kinds of people and say, 'If they can do it, then I can do it.'"

Of course, she isn't doing the same "it" that her subjects are, but nonetheless, she has shown much beauty, courage and integrity through her filmmaking. And certainly with American Dream, she was committed and determined to show the whole story, no matter how torn she might have been by the different sides.

"I was so caught in the middle," she said, "because my way of doing things is to try to tell all the story, so that you can get as much perspective as you possibly can. So I would hang out with [the Hormel executives] and be allowed into meetings, and then I would hang out with the guys who finally crossed the picket line, and I would hang out with [the union contract negotiator]. So I felt like I was walking on broken glass, but I knew that I had to do it because otherwise I wouldn't be telling you a full story. And I think seeing the full story, making your own decisions and seeing all the complexities that happened is what makes a film rich and makes a film real."

"I had to give more speeches doing that film than I ever have," she continued, "because if things weren't going right for [the strikers], they'd say, 'Get the camera crew out of here.' And then I'd get up and say, 'No, what you're doing is important. We've gotta record it.' Then the international union would say, 'Get outta here. We know where your allegiances lie.' And I said, 'Listen. You're not going to be heard then. What you're going to say is going to be totally silenced. If that's what you want, we're going to leave.' And they let us do it. We had a door slammed in our face for one important meeting, and I just opened it and we just walked in."

The result is a more inclusive and involved documentary than both Harlan County, U.S.A. and Kopple's latest, Shut Up & Sing, although this doesn't necessarily make it better -- it just makes it different, and this difference is important. The first time I saw American Dream, I had thought, "OK, another strike doc from Barbara Kopple." But it is interesting to think about how this film not only couldn't have been made the same way by another filmmaker, nor could it have been made the same way about another sort of strike, and it also couldn't have been made the same way about the same sort of strike in another location. In fact, Kopple told the IFC Center crowd how the film was almost something else, with some other tone.

"I started actually in a different site," she said. "I had waited for a long time to try to pick the right place. I heard about this plant that was an Armour plant, and they were going to close the plant. So, I went to Worthington, Minnesota, and started filming, and it was so depressing. I would come back and not want to go out again, because the people just blamed themselves. And then people would pack up and it was almost like Grapes of Wrath. Then, one day on the radio, I heard, 'We're sick and tired of this, and we're not going to take it anymore.' And I thought, 'There's energy, there's passion, there's stuff happening.' Anyway, it was better than Worthington, where everybody just gave up.

"So, this was Austin, Minnesota, and off I went. And people were fired up and ready to take on the company. This is a place that's a very small community where your grandfather worked in the plant, and your father worked in the plant, and you worked in the plant. So, it was very intimate and had a real sense of ritual. So when this happened to them, they really felt a sense of betrayal." -- Christopher Campbell

Posted at November 15, 2006 3:25 PM

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