Barbara Kopple (born July 30, 1946) is an American film director known primarily for her documentary work.
She has won two Academy Awards, the first in 1976 for Harlan County, USA, about a Kentucky miners' strike, and the second in 1991 for American Dream, the story of the 1985–86 Hormel strike in Austin, Minnesota.
Kopple also directed Bearing Witness, a 2005 documentary about five women journalists stationed in combat zones during the Iraq War. She is known for her work with artists, including A Conversation With Gregory Peck as well as documentaries on Mike Tyson, Woody Allen, and Mariel Hemingway. She was on tour with the Dixie Chicks when lead singer Natalie Maines criticized the Iraq War. The film, Shut Up and Sing, debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. It went on to win a Special Jury Prize at the Chicago International Film Festival, and two Audience awards (Sydney Film Festival and Aspen Film Fest).
She has directed episodes of the television drama series Homicide: Life on the Street and Oz, winning a Directors Guild of America award for the former.
Kopple grew up on a vegetable farm in Scarsdale, New York, the daughter of a textile executive. She studied psychology at Northeastern University, where she opted to make her first film instead of writing a term paper for a clinical psychology course. This experience began Kopple's interest in filmmaking. Kopple's political involvement started in college with her participation in antiwar protests against the Vietnam War.
Kopple attended the School of Visual Arts soon thereafter, where Kopple met documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles through a classmate. She assisted them on their documentary Salesman, and then did camera work for their film on the Rolling Stones, titled Gimme Shelter. Reflecting on her time working with the Maysles, Kopple said “the wonderful thing about working for Alan and David Maysles was that they were the first company that treated women as equals...everybody attended all the meetings; everybody's opinion was important.” She subsequently worked as an editor, camera operator, and sound operator on numerous documentaries and then started production on Harlan County, USA in 1972.
Kopple first became aware of the plights of the Appalachia miners while studying at Northeastern University. In 1972, Kopple started her own production company, Cabin Creek Films. It was during this time that miners walked off the job in Harlan County, and Kopple began the filming Miners for Democracy movement led by Arnold Miller. When Tony Boyle was ousted from the union leadership and miners began striking for union recognition, Kopple moved to Harlan with a crew of five and a loan of $12,000. Kopple and her crew lived with the miners, filming even when they ran out of film because the presence of a camera “kept down violence.”
Harlan County, USA took four years to make and cost over $200,000. Continuing production was financially demanding on Kopple and her small crew, who regularly moved back-and-forth between Harlan and New York to collect financial backing from grant proposals and odd jobs, even writing letters for money from miners’ homes. When she ran out of money, Kopple would “come back to New York and take whatever job I could, editing, sound, until I got enough to go back.” Kopple also accepted donated money from her parents, friends and others in order to continue financing the project; she eventually placed herself into great debt for the film, utilizing her personal credit card for many expenses.
Kopple was threatened by mine owners during filming, being told that “if I was ever caught alone at night I'd be killed.” She reportedly carried two pistols while filming in Harlan.
Harlan County, USA debuted at the New York Film Festival in October, 1976, where it received a standing ovation. The film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, Kopple accepting the award “on behalf of the miners of Harlan County who took us into their homes, trusted us, and shared their love with us.”
After Harlan County, USA, Kopple didn't finish another documentary until 1990. Kopple instead took her political focus on unions to television, directing the 90-minute television drama Keeping On.
American Dream, Kopple's next feature-length documentary captured the 1985–86 Hormel strike, a two-year-long workers strike against Hormel Foods. Kopple was first turned onto the subject matter in the early 1980s while working on starting a different documentary project. While driving in Worthington, Minn., Kopple heard a new radio broadcast on developing strikes amongst workers in meatpacking plants of Austin. Kopple reportedly started driving towards Austin immediately; “that was the beginning,” said Kopple, “And I never left."
American Dream proved to be even more difficult for Kopple to produce than Harlan County, USA, despite her previous documentary's success. Budget for the film was tight, and Kopple found it difficult to obtain funding due to its subject matter.
Unlike Harlan County, which had Kopple very much on one side of the battle, Kopple intentionally aimed to be much more objective in depicting the differing perspectives of the Hormel Strike in American Dream. “I cared about the people in Austin, Minn., very much,” Kopple reflected, “but if we were ever to look back at [the film], we had to have the full story.”
American Dream premiered at the New York Film Festival on October 6, 1990. It eventually earned Kopple her second Academy Award the following year. Kopple continued to exclusively make documentaries for nearly the next decade and a half, exploring new subject matters such as crime procedurals and the lives of celebrities.
Her first non-documentary feature film to play in theaters, Havoc, starred Anne Hathaway and Bijou Phillips as wealthy suburbanites who venture into East Los Angeles Latino gang territory, and was released straight to DVD in 2005. Kopple has recently ventured into advertising work that includes documentary-style commercials for Target Stores.
She was among the 19 filmmakers who worked together anonymously (under the rubric Winterfilm Collective) to produce the film Winter Soldier, an anti-war documentary about the Winter Soldier Investigation. She has also done films for The Working Group, directing the 30-minute short documentary Locked Out in America: Voices From Ravenswood for the We Do the Work series. (We Do the Work aired in the mid-1990s on the PBS television series "P.O.V.", and Kopple's segment was based on the book Ravenswood: The Steelworkers' Victory and the Revival of American Labor.)
In the fall of 2006, she released the documentary Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing about the Dixie Chicks' George W. Bush-related controversy.
In 2012 Kopple released two films. One is about Mariel Hemingway, the granddaughter of Ernest Hemingway, and the other is concerning the 150th Anniversary of The Nation magazine. The film on Hemingway, Running from Crazy, was shown at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
In 2014, Sight and Sound published a list of its Greatest Documentaries of All Time, and Kopple's film Harlan County, USA (1976) was ranked 24th, tied with two other movies.
When beginning to make the film Harlan County, USA, Kopple was promised a $9,000 grant, then later was denied. This happened countless times before she eventually secured the necessary funds. The moving image collection of Barbara Kopple is held at the Academy Film Archive, which preserved Harlan County, USA.
Kopple's documentaries are in the style of cinema vérité. Reflecting on her documentaries in 1991, Kopple said “the kind of films that influenced me have more to do with watching people, letting scenes come alive so you actually see people change through the course of the film...almost like you're right there.” Her work typically consist of observational footage, minimal voice-overs and intimate interviews with her subjects. She has listed the Maysle brothers and D. A. Pennebaker as notable influences on her technique. “I absolutely loved Don't Look Back because he got so close to Dylan,” Kopple said of Pennebacker. “I wanted to make films that were as intimate as that.”
Kopple's work is often politically driven. She has made several films on U.S. labor issues, as well as worker's unions, and has been a longtime advocate for the American labor movement. Many of her documentaries revolve around political subject matters, but her more recent work has taken a shift towards music documentary and celebrity portraiture.
For her documentaries, Kopple works in small crews of two to five, almost always acting as her own sound operator.
Kopple is a niece of the American playwright Murray Burnett.