American Dream: Barbara Kopple’s Seminal Documentary

Acclaimed director Barbara Kopple says she never knows what’s in store when she sets out to make a documentary. This was certainly the case of her new film, “American Dream.”

She wanted to see how the industrial landscape has changed in the U.S. since her seminal 1976 docu, “Harlan County, U.S.A.” Kopple knew that there was a story out there about Middle America, about people who believed in the American Dream and the American work ethic, and were now forced to watch those dreams shattered.

Originally from the affluent suburb of Scarsdale, New York, Kopple has been making tributes to working class heroes and heroines. Though her work is Old Left Socialism, she knows how to transcribe class struggle into a more general language of American populism without making her audiences too nervous.

“American Dream” questions the fundamental survival of union traditions in 1990s America. Kopple’s overall goal is to let people speak and let them be heard, because what they say is more important than what President Bush has to say about those issues. In other words, she films stories about the kinds of people you would not ordinarily see in American movies, which are biased toward the rich and famous.

“American Dream” claims a strong political theme, but Kopple claims to be more socially conscious than politically conscious. She cares about what happens to people, and feels confident taking risks. Serious, independently made documentaries are not crowd pleasers, and are not widely distributed.

Kopple claims that when only you begin shooting, you start seeing themes emerge. What emerged for her was that we are not living in very humane times. People should not have to make the choices that the workers in her film were forced to make.

According to the docu, there were three sides to the struggle. First, a management operating in a depressed industry determined to roll back wages, despite continuing profits. Second, an international union convinced that this was the wrong time for a strike. And third, a local union led by militants and further stirred by a hired consultant whose strategy was to embarrass the company into capitulation by bringing in the media.

Kopple was surprised by this intra-union struggle. By the end of her docu, the parent union throws out the rebels and settles with Hormell. Hormell and its position almost fade from view in favor of the intra-union conflict. “American Dream’s most heartbreaking drama is the drama of the scab. This time, however, its different; many of the scabs here are die-hard union men with families to support. Kopple sees what the international union does not, that the long local union struggle has surprisingly little to do with strike aims, but rather being treated fairly and with respect, an attitude that the international union and Hormell does not do.

Kopple could not have known things would turn out this dramatically when she began. She is defensive about charges that her film is a criticism of the labor movement. Kopple believes that these are good people, who are just fighting on different fronts, based on different beliefs. Kopple allows both union sides to speak their minds in the film, showing how sincere people with basically the same aims can disagree so profoundly and with such painful consequences. What was interesting to her was that they were not the villains, the villain was structural, the social system itself.

“American Dream ” is really about the decimation of a community. There have been many divorces, illnesses, and broken friendships. Kopple was unaware of the mental brutality people would endure to keep a decent job.

Compared to “Harlan County, U.S.A.,” “American Dream” was nearly a decade in the making. Kopple filmed for more than two years. It cost nearly $1 million, with investor backing and contributions from foundations, church groups, and others. At one point Kopple only had $275 left for the project.

Kopple made “American Dream” the same way she had made “Harlan County,” by getting close and intimate, immersing herself in the community, living with people and gaining their trust. This made it possible for strong union men to sit in front of the camera and cry about how they could no longer support their families.

Kopple filmed the documentary with a two-member crew, made up of herself (operating the sound equipment) and a cameraman. Doors were slammed in her face during filming, but Kopple claims that, when that happened, she would just go on with her crew.

As a woman, Kopple might have been more attentive to the women who support their fathers and husbands in their refusal to cross the line. She feels that being a woman helped, because she was less intimidating, and besides, some thought that nothing would come of the film anyway.

“American Dream” won numerous awards, including the Oscar Award for Best Documentary Feature–Kopple is the only woman to ever win this award twice. The film’s thesis is anything but a simplistic us-versus-them scenario, it has much to say about the limits of confrontation as a means of settling issues.

The film’s subtext is passionately political, but in the end, it succeeds because it is a story about people. The power of Kopple’s film derives from the access Kopple gained to the union’s inner circles and the lives of its leaders, their rank and file followers and opponents. These people, out of control, rush towards destruction. In their intensity, these scenes approximate the stature of a classic Greek tragedy.

Seeing working-class Americans standing up for what they feel is right makes you proud, but knowing the futility of their effort is depressing. The film illustrates how shattered the American labor movement is. It shows good people steamrolled by historical forces. It is sad, but also raises anger as to what happened in the 80’s when federal policies conspired with big business to cripple organized labor. The film puts us face to face with the hard truth, namely that ultimately our society is based not on social justice but on political power.

The film’s national release was delayed, because it took months to work out a way to pay back an investor who wanted his money before the film opened commercially. It was released by Prestige Films, a subdivision of Miramax, and was shown for free in Austin, Minnesota.