Harlan County, USA, an Oscar-winning documentary directed and produced by prominent filmmaker Barbara Kopple in 1976, is an incredibly moving film that tells the story – using an intersection of the participatory and observational documentary modes – of coal miners in Kentucky who, together with their families, endured a long, violent strike in defense of their rights. The conflict arose out of a disagreement between miners at the Brookside Mine in Harlan County and Duke Power company. The miners of Harlan County were in favor of joining the United Mine Workers of America; however, when Duke Power and the local mining company in Harlan County refused to sign the contract, the miners and their families embarked on a 13 month-long strike, which was only resolved after one miner was shot and killed during a peaceful protest.
Though, at face value, the film sounds simple enough, it possesses several powerful undercurrents worthy of discussion. First and foremost: the film is widely regarded as feminist. Again and again, throughout the film, Kopple represents the the miners’ wives as being integral in both the planning and carrying out of protests and demonstrations. So much so, in fact, that that one of the larger messages of the film is the growing influence of women, both domestically and publically, in the latter half of the 20th Century. Simply put, the miners of Harlan County may never have successfully gotten their contract without the help of their wives.
Secondly, the role of music plays a fascinating, unifying role amongst the miners and their families. Throughout the film, we hear songs – presumably written and performed diegetically by characters in the film – that speak directly to the miners’ struggle. One scene, in particular, shows a woman singing in front of a large rally, and the camera shows us people in the audience singing along. These songs unite the mining community – men, women, and children alike, in their struggle against Duke Power.
- Lolly Hirsch and her daughter Jean discuss self-examinations.
Healthcaring is a short documentary that focuses on the historical and contemporary abuses women have suffered at the hands of mostly male practitioners, and depicts solutions women find to lack of access to comprehensive health care in the 1970s.
The film includes many talking heads of women relating their stories of mishaps with mainstream gynecologists and obstetricians, including victim-blaming following a rape, mistreatment during labor, and general misinformation and disrespect. The women’s anecdotes are often short and intense with no interference from an interviewer. This gives the viewer a sense of the popular attitude of women towards mainstream healthcare, especially because there is a wide range of women speaking to the issue in terms of race and age. Interestingly, there is no discussion of abortion rights in the film at all, which may be due to the politics or morals of the filmmakers, or the fact that the Roe v. Wade decision had recently been made by the Supreme Court and there was uncertainty about the effects of the decision in favor of the child-bearer’s right to terminate their pregnancy.
There is also historical context for the systemic mistreatment of women by practitioners that is shown through archival images and acted narration. There is distinct romanticization of eras past when women would care for each other and there was little interference from men in natural female processes such as menstruation and birth. There is little mention of the benefits that modern medicine provided many patients will including antibiotics and effective birth control. But this ties into the main critique of the film that women have been denied genuine access to knowledge about how their bodies work and how to take care of themselves.
The crux of the film’s message rests in the spaces that women have created to nurture self-knowledge concerning preventative care. Though the women who speak about the clinics that they have created with fondness, they directly express their belief that the health care they had to seek out ought to be provided free of charge to every woman in the United States. There is a great sense of the value in maintaining a space for women that includes lively discussion about relevant health issues, promotion of preventative care procedures, and outreach to the communities that the clinics exist.
Ultimately, this film is very frustrating to watch in the beginning of the 21st century because so many of the problems discussed are still endemic in society today. There is still ineffective education about sexual health throughout the United States and shame surrounding feminine sexuality and the bodies of those with vaginas. There are still political attacks on organizations such as Planned Parenthood that provide much needed educational resources, as well as prenatal and STI medical care. It brings to mind the fact that there needs to be more visibility for women’s health clinics, staffed by community members or medical practitioners, as well as the continuing struggle for comprehensively available healthcare overall, with special attention to the needs of women.
“Women and Mental Health: A Feminist Review”
“Rejecting the Center: Radical Grassroots Politics in the 1970s — Second-Wave Feminism as a Case Study”
(Une Vraie Jeune Fille)
Format of Official Release: DVD/VHSA Real Young Girl is Catherine Breillat’s first film based on her novel Le Soupirail. This film started the pivotal and controversial career of Breillat with its sexual content that led to it being banned in many countries only to be released in the festival circuit in 2000, twenty-four years after being made. As her other films, A Real Young Girl concerns the theme of sexuality as told through the perspective of a young woman. The intense visual nature of the film makes it difficult to describe exactly what the film actually consists of, as is typical of Breillat’s films, it needs to be seen to be thoroughly understood.
The story itself is rather simple in spite of its visual complexity. It takes place over a period of a young girl’s, named Alice (Charlotte Alexandra), summer vacation from boarding school. At 14 she is at the peak of her own sexual discovery. We are immediately aware of her sexual curiosity when she arrives home and sits at the dinner table. The scene seems to be set normally enough until Alice drops her spoon and as the camera moves down below the table we see her pick it up to pleasure herself as her family continues to eat. A dichotomy that continues throughout the film as she tries to let go of her old childlike self and embrace her new-found sexual nature. Alice becomes withdrawn because of this, even at school as portrayed in one of her flashbacks. She cannot escape her own blossoming physical self and often resides in her room writing in her diary and staring at herself in the mirror.
While her father works at a sawmill and her mother stays at home busy with domestic duties, Alice becomes bored with her surroundings. She becomes obsessed with her own sexual fantasies, and the boundaries between Alice’s daydreams and reality become increasingly blurred as the film progresses. She becomes fixated on Jim (Hiram Keller) an employee at her father’s sawmill. She often visits the sawmill to stare at Jim and fantasize about him in very sexually explicit and bizarre ways. Her thoughts drift beyond being purely sexual and border on the grotesque and gritty nature of her environment. Her interactions beyond the realm of fantasy are awkward as she travels around on her bike to bars and attempts to flirt with men. When she finally does catch the eye of Jim she resorts to acting like a little girl and the encounter falls short of her sexual fantasies.
This film could be scrutinized by its sexual content but such a characterization trivializes the content of this film and all of Breillat’s films. As Breillat states (in defense of often being called the “auteur of porn”), “I take sexuality as a subject, not as an object” (Wiegan). In order to well express the consciousness of her female characters it seems necessary for Breillat to express them visually. Of course, viewers become distracted by this imagery that creates such controversy and her films continue to be labeled as pornographic to this day.
Wiegan, Chris. “A Quick Chat with Catherine Breillat”, Kamera.co.uk, 1999, www.kamera.co.uk/interviews/catherinebreillat.html
Other Resources for Information About Catherine Breillat