Friday, March 13, 2009

"Harlan County USA" - DVD of 70s documentary about coal miners


In 2004, the Criterion Collection released a DVD of the 1976 social PBS documentary “Harlan County U.S.A.”, which had a brief theatrical release then from Cinema 5. I thought it was unusual for Criterion to release independent films, and this one is of major social importance. The director is Barbara Kopple and the original production company was Cabin Creek.

In May 1991 I visited the underground coal mine in Beckley W Va, and in May 1972 I had toured the eastern Kentucky strip mine country with a previous roommate from the University of Kansas (then teaching at Bowling Green, KY, ironically). But this film is about the hard life of underground coal miners in the eastern worn down mountain country. They go into work in low-crawl position on a sluice, into a tunnel 4 feet high. In the course of the film, there is one major fatal accident; there have been several in the U.S. (PA, UT) since 2000.

The film also shows the life in company housing, often with poor utilities. But most of the film deals with the politics of – you guessed it – unions. I recall that about the time I started work in New York in 1974 at NBC, a coal strike loomed as a big economic threat, behind the Arab oil shock from which we had recovered, sort of, with a stagflation recession.

Union boss Lewis, around 1960, is taped in black and white as saying that as an individual worker you have no influence and no recognition. So, organize. I thought, how different that has been for information technology workers, who rarely organize, or bloggers, for whom individual self-expression and recognition a primal virtue, questionable in the minds of some (especially in China).

But the labor strife intensifies, leading to violence and sometimes blacklisting. Finally, there is a rank and file vote.

The film covers black lung disease, including the symptoms, and shows older coal miners taking stress electrocardiograms, their bodies covered with invasive stickers and needles. They are fully humiliated.

The DVD features an interview with John Sayles, who made "Matewan", in 1987, about the 1920-21 coal strife. Sales remarks that citified Americans have little concept of what they owe in karma to underground coal miners, who nevertheless lose their jobs to strip mines.

But I remember Michael Apted’s film from Universal, "Coal Miner’s Daughter" (1980), where Sissy Spacek plays activist Loretta Lynn, holding a sign that reads “union.”

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