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The Cutting Edge: Kopple on Documentaries y films are about people I care M about, people who are my heroes,” Barbara Kopple told The Texas Observer by phone from Phoenix, where she was visiting a friend. “I just like to get out into a community and observe what happens to people in a crisis.” She happened upon the crisis in meatpacking “a very American industry” when she traveled to Worthington, Minn. to cover the closing of an Armour plant. Austin is 80 miles away, and she was soon tracking the larger story of Hormel’s demand for wage concessions. “I loved the material,” says Kopple, whose working title for the project was Cutting Edge. While the work was still in rough cut but organizers of the New York Film Festival were pestering her for something to print on their program, she chose the name American Dream. Kopple’s camera manages to capture characters in vulnerable and often unflattering moments. How does she succeed in gaining their trust? “I don’t just run in and run out to get a story for the evening news,” she explains. “I actually live in the community.” When American Dream was screened for 1,200 former Hormel strikers, the reaction was a unanimous and emotional endorsement. A company spokesman, however, rated the film a “C,” on account of its failure to show enough of Hormel’s positive features. Kopple majored in clinical psychology and political science at Northeastern University, but a six-month work-study program in which she made a short about lobotomies whetted her appetite for celluloid. After graduation, she moved to New York and apprenticed with the Maysles brothers, legendary masters of cinema verite. It was a proud moment of passing the baton when she was able to give the Maysles two passes to the New York Film Festival to see her Harlan County, U.S.A., which went on to win the 1977 Oscar for documentaries. People assume that Barbara Kopple can now get money easily. The Oscar for Harlan County created that assumption and, she insists, actually made it harder for her to find funding. Because Kopple uses only one crew and does the sound herself, she made American Dream on a budget of barely $1 million, but much of her time and energy is consumed by hustling for backers and distributors. “Documentaries need to be seen in theaters,” insists Kopple, whose latest documentary, Beyond JFK: The Question of Conspiracy, is currently showing in theaters in New York and Boston. “The more that people go and support them, the more that distributors will screen them. Real people are fascinating.” The real person who is the focus of Kopple’s current project is boxer Mike Tyson. She expects to finish work in the fall on a study of the man, his sport, his friends, his family, and the phenomenon of date rape. “Mostly my films are about men it’s almost like peeping under a blanket.” What is her blanket response to a question about the function of film? She credits the Hormel strike itself more than her film about it to passage of a Minnesota law that bans the hiring of permanent replacements for striking workers. A federal version, sponsored by Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, is currently pending in the Senate after passage by the House. “I don’t think film can change the world,” says Kopple. “What film offers you is a collective experience. People can change things. Film can be the impetus for a dialogue. And dialogue can change the world.” S.K. BOOKS & THE CULTURE Slaughter in Minnesota. BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN AMERICAN DREAM Directed by Barbara Kopple THE OPENING IMAGE in American Dream is of hogs being readied for industrial slaughter. On the Hormel pro duction lines that end in Spam and piggish profits, both cutters and cut are treated like swine. In a work that won the 1991 Oscar for documentary feature but is only now being distributed nationally, Barbara Kopple chronicles the brazen strike by a wildcat local against a Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota. In 1984, after reporting an annual profit of $29 million, the meat conglomerate announced that it was lowering wages from $10.69 to $8.25 an hour and reducing benefits by 30 percent. Charles Nyberg, chief counsel for the corporation, explains: “We don’t want to go the way of many other packers who realized too late that their costs were out of line.” Rejecting Hormel’s line as well as instructions from their international leaders, members of local union P-9 walked off the job. For most, the separation became permanent. Just above the border with Iowa, Austin is an American dream of tidy streets and busy churches. Its 20,000 citizens believed in the work ethic and the paternal benevolence of Hormel, until the frigid winter of 1985-86, when P-9 walked out and scabs walked in. “This is a tragedy for all of us,” says the aptly named Sheriff Wayne Goodnature. “It’s tearing us up.” Without narration, as compellingly as Greek drama, American Dream presents a native tragedy, a disaster that might have been averted, if the circumstances and protagonists had been different. “People who believe in what they’re doing are the most dangerous people in the world,” declares Jim Guyette, president of the Austin affiliate of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. The people in P9 so believe in the justice of the cause that they are willing to endanger their livelihood and the harmony of their community. “They’re gonna become bigger losers than they are now,” predicts Lewie Anderson, director of the meat packing division for the parent union. Anderson, a burly veteran of the butchering business, urges restraint; even if the Austin workers succeed in forcing Hormel to restore their wages, the com Steven G. Kellman is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas-San Antonio. pany will simply close down the plant and transfer the work, at lower cost, to their operations in other towns. “It’s the wrong kind of unionism,” argues Anderson about Austin’s muti nous intransigence. He is at the time negotiating contracts with 10 major companies. “I’d rather live 50 years like a tiger than 100 years like a chicken,” proclaimed Hubert 18 JUNE 5, 1992 ,se ,