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Barbara Kopple Talks Awards, Film Families, and Miss Sharon Jones!

Submitted by on October 20, 2016 – 8:23 pm

Few directors, whether they work on documentaries or feature films, are as esteemed as Barbara Kopple.

Among other prizes, Kopple has won two Academy Awards for documentary features (Harlan County U.S.A. and American Dream), three Directors Guild of America Awards, and Audience, Filmmaker, and Grand Jury prizes from the Sundance Film Festival.

Given the recognition she has earned over a diverse and productive career, I asked Kopple, somewhat skeptically, whether awards, at this point in her career, still matter.

“More than ever,” was her surprising reply. “They matter so much.”

“We as filmmakers take [awards] seriously,” she affirmed, stating that she still reads all the reviews for her films, cherishing the positive ones and interrogating herself over the criticisms.

Perhaps even more important than the personal affirmation that comes from an award is the ability to share it with the subjects of her film, many of whom have become what she calls her “film family.” Despite the ever-growing size of that film family, she treasures the relationships that were built over the course of filming, specifically mentioning the Dixie Chicks and children (and grandchildren) of Harlan County participants as former film subjects who weave in and out of the tapestry of her life. It’s clear then, that praise for Miss Sharon Jones! is not just taken as another in a series of affirmations of Kopple’s artistry but also as an agreement with the director that the film’s subject is both infectious and inspiring.

When asked what makes a great documentary–direction or subject matter–she offers her own perspective: “telling a good story.” Directorial style is not enough on its own. It is equally true that there are plenty of documentaries that “ought to be great” given their subject matter but that aren’t able to engage viewers and draw them in. It is that ability to shape the material into a story that she values when asked to serve as a juror and which she aims for in her own work.

Kopple’s latest subject, Sharon Jones, was diagnosed with Stage Two pancreatic cancer before filming started. For the director, the story was not so much about fighting cancer as it was about Jones’s resilient spirit, strength, and drive. “Sharon just has a a passion for life,” Kopple says of the performer.

The director notes without prompting that many of her subjects–Sharon Jones, Mariel Hemingway, Natalie Means–are women who have had to exercise their resolve in the face of daunting adversity.  From where does that strength come from? In Jones’s case Kopple speculates a connection between the performer’s “inner strength” and “her religion.” The film neither shies away from nor particularly proselytizes for that religion. Here, as with Shut Up and Sing!, Kopple deftly balances intimacy and advocacy with enough detachment to allow her to handle potentially polarizing subjects in a productive and engaging manner.

Certainly the conflicts within Miss Sharon Jones! are more universal and less political than those in Shut Up and Sing! or Hot Type: 150 Years of the Nation. The film shares with Running From Crazy an interest in the day-to-day battles of a woman trying to preserve and enjoy what is good in her life while coming to terms with the shadow of her own mortality. Running from Crazy is a more somber meditation; Miss Sharon Jones! is amazingly upbeat given the circumstances of its filming.

“Ultimately,” Kopple says of her latest profile, “this is a film about love.”

Sharon Jones clearly loves life. Barbara Kopple appears to love showing us Jones’s passion for life and performance in action. Only the most hardened cynics would think that is not a good story.

Kenneth R. Morefield (@kenmorefield) is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I, II, & III, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.

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