Doing the impossible

    Barbara Kopple has come to Amsterdam with a brace of new feature documentaries, both European premieres. Hot Type: 150 years of The Nation is in IDFA's Masters while Miss Sharon Jones! has been screening in the Music Documentary section.

    You can't help but think of London buses at the simultaneous arrival of these movies, and the old saying that you wait an eternity for one, then two turn up at once. Kopple, though, explains that Hot Type (which celebrates 150 years of America's oldest liberal literary magazine) started first, in 2012, while Miss Sharon Jones! (which follows soul singer Jones as she is diagnosed with and then recovers from cancer) began shooting in 2013. It just so happens that they both ended up being completed in 2015, in time for IDFA.

    One of the issues foregrounded in Hot Type is the struggle The Nation is having adjusting to a digital world. Ask the double Oscar-winning director what she feels about the new media landscape and she sighs. "I certainly miss film. It is so beautiful and wonderful," she states. "Also, you don't have to ponder which camera to use, because the [digital] cameras change every month. Cinematographers don't even know what the best camera is… we've lost tapes. Now it is hard drives and it continues to change."

    The technology may change, but Kopple's own approach to documentary making remains exactly as it was when she directed her first Oscar winner, Harlan County, in the mid-1970s. She looks for "a good story" she feels passionately about and then tries "to shoot it beautifully, in whatever medium it is."

    The Maysles brothers

    Kopple came into the doc world in a roundabout way. She was a student in Boston, studying clinical psychology, and decided to make a film for her thesis. She came to New York to take a course on cinema verité. "The woman sitting next to me, we got to be friends. She said I am working for these people called the Maysles brothers. They're looking for an intern. Would you be interested? I said yes!" And so Kopple came to serve her apprenticeship with doc legends Albert and David Maysles. "Albert was more of the technical one. David did sound as well, but he was more the business person," she remembers of the division of responsibility between them.

    On the Maysles' classic doc Salesman (1969), Kopple's job was to do "what nobody else wanted to do." In practice, this meant getting the mailing list from The Museum of Modern Art. ("That was virtually impossible, but I did it.") On Rolling Stones doc Gimme Shelter (1970), her job was to hold the film magazines and the quarter-inch tape. "Also, Al got on (assistant) Stan Goldstein's shoulders. My job was to hold them up. I was the human tripod!"

    The brothers gave her the opportunity to learn every aspect of her craft. "What the Maysles did for me at a very young age was to let me have confidence, to let me believe in myself. They valued who I was and valued my opinion."

    Barbara Kopple at IDFA 2014. (Foto: Nichon Glerum)

    Personalities

    Over the years, Kopple has worked on films about some very strong-willed personalities. Occasionally, she admits, she has had to make tiny changes to her docs to keep them happy. "It's very small things the characters don't like. (Model and actress) Mariel Hemingway, when we had Running from Crazy here, didn't like the way a pair of jeans fit her from behind so I snipped it. It's not a big deal. Woody Allen for Wild Man Blues thought people would be really offended because he would shake their hands, and he has a phobia – then he would run and wash his hands. He asked if that could come out. It doesn't change the story at all… if it makes somebody happy, why not, if it doesn't change the context," she says.

    Over the years, Kopple has made TV drama, feature films and commercials as well as docs. "They're wonderful. They're absolutely fun," she says of her forays into fiction. "The first one I worked on that was fiction was Homicide: Life on the Street. (Actor) André Braugher said, 'If this was a documentary, you're just going to take one take and then we'd go home.' I said No, a good documentarian stays until she gets everything! Yaphet Kotto, who played the head police chief, said: 'I don't really have any lines in this, so I think I will just go to my honey wagon.' I said no, Yaphet, these are your men and when the camera goes on you, that's the money shot."

    In the fiction films, just as in her docs, Kopple aims for "a sense of truthfulness." As for the commercials for companies like Ford and Dove, they keep her production company Cabin Creek Films ticking over. "You feel great because it is all done in a couple of weeks… I love them. I think they're great, plus there is money involved and that keeps you going."

    Mention Kopple's name to film critics and the film they almost invariably reach for first is Harlan County. She doesn't mind at all being identified so strongly with one doc. "It was my first and I was very proud of it. If that is how somebody identifies me, that makes me really happy. There are so many filmmakers making so many films that, if they remember one, that is really important to me."

    Hot Type: 150 Years of The Nation

    • Barbara Kopple
    • 2015
    • 93 min

    A lively behind-the-scenes look at America’s longest-running weekly magazine and its reporting of big news, now and in the past.

    Miss Sharon Jones!

    • Barbara Kopple
    • 2015
    • 94 min

    A portrait of the gutsy soul singer Sharon Jones, following her all the way from her pancreatic cancer diagnosis to her first post-recovery performance.

    Harlan County, USA

    • Barbara Kopple
    • 1976
    • 102 min

    Running from Crazy

    • Barbara Kopple
    • 2013
    • 100 min

    In this moving account, Ernest Hemingway’s granddaughter embarks on a quest to get to grips with her family’s history of psychological instability.