At the age of 26, independent filmmaker Barbara Kopple raised $9,000 for her first documentary feature and headed to Harlan County, Kentucky, an economically depressed area in the Appalachian Mountains where coal mining was the principal industry. She was intent on filming the then-current strike by the miners of Harlan County, Kentucky against their management, the Duke Power Company, but first, she had to gain the trust of the miners. After living among the local residents and getting to know them, Kopple eventually overcame their suspicions and began to chronicle the miners' struggle to join a union - the United Mine Workers - against the, often violent, resistance of the Duke Power Co. The result - Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976) - was an astonishingly intimate and passionate work that won the Oscar® for Best Documentary and recently was selected as one of twenty-five films by the Library of Congress to be placed on its Film Registry.
Harlan County, U.S.A. is not a traditional documentary in any sense of the word. It combines both cinema verite techniques with archival footage to create a context and background for the political struggle it depicts. Newsreels from the 1920s and '30s, interviews with doctors at the black lung center in West Virginia, information about the coal industry, and candid moments captured on film during the 13 month strike are expertly edited together to form a fascinating sociological study.