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Commencement 2010: Barbara Kopple

Photo: Mortarboard and diplomas

Wow, to say the least, I’m blown away by that [introduction by American University President Neil Kerwin]. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for that wonderful presentation. And I just want to thank all of the faculty, President Kerwin, Provost Bass, who I hope gets well soon, Dean Kirkman, Vice President Gail Hansen for being so remarkable, for having me today. I am extremely proud and I am so humbled to be addressing the graduating class of 2010. I am honored to be part of such a special moment and also in honoring your parents who have sacrificed so much to be able to bring you here and are probably so proud today because of your accomplishments, and your friends that are here supporting you.

This is a meaningful day for me. I remember back in 2001 when this amazingly dedicated woman Pat Aufderheide, first told me about a wonderful plan for a Center for Social Media at American University. A center that would be a vehicle for socially engaged media making, including first class faculty and of course talented, dedicated students. And I thought, yes this is such a powerful idea that will make an immediate impact on aspiring filmmakers and working professionals. The work that the Center for Social Media has done on the issue of fair use has opened doors for filmmakers like myself, and so many others, to allow us to tell the stories we want to tell and put our first amendment rights to use in new and exciting ways. So I want to congratulate Pat Aufderheide, Dean Kirkman, Peter Yassi, and all the filmmakers and people who did research for this. It’s been astounding for all of us on the outside. 

I am so excited for you because of the journey this graduating class is about to take into the world of storytelling. To communicate is to connect. It’s to build community. As filmmakers and media makers, we have the opportunity to be an engaged part of the struggles of our times. These struggles may be political. They may be personal. They may be artistic. They may be cultural. Or, they may be a combination of all of that. All around us are stories of redemption, of courage, of rebellion, love and grace.

The work we do matters, it has the potential to change things. It may be small, personal evolutions. It may have impact on a school or a community or a political campaign or a social grass roots movement. As media makers we have the opportunity to give a voice to people, to show them with dignity. We have the opportunity to impact people’s lives with our work, to expose injustice and inspire change.

But the stories we also tell impact our own lives in ways we could never imagine. We get so much in return with the work that we do. When I started thinking about what I might talk to you about today, about perhaps some of the experiences in my own life that might shed some light and perspective for you, I was flooded with memories. I remembers a young boy, age 11, who was born with AIDS. He was an old soul. He had his life all mapped out for him. He was going to be an extraordinary doctor and cure AIDS. And as a kid all he wanted to do was just be like everybody else and to be loved. Chris died when he was 13 years old from AIDS but I was so honored to have been able to tell his story and seen the impact that he’s had on so many.

Gregory Peck, enormous actor. He played the role of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird and Gregory Peck, in his personal life, was Atticus Finch. He cared about social rights, he cared about civil rights, he cared about literacy and one of the most striking moments that I had with Gregory Peck when was moments after his grandson Harper was born, watching him hold him in his arms.

Nelson Mandela, prisoner, president. He spent 27 years of his life in jail, 18 of those on Robben Island. I went back with Nelson Mandela five years after he had gotten out of Robben Island. He took me back to his cell, a small cell with an earthen floor and he told me stories about what it was like to be imprisoned, what it was like to struggle for anti-apartheid and to practically give up so much of his life to be able to do it.

Some of the guards who had been with him when he was in jail for those eighteen years were still there, and he lovingly put his arms around them and said, "Ah, it's so good to see you." And then, he poked fun at them and he said, "But, by now I thought you would have been promoted." The things that you are able to film when the camera is rolling; the things I learned, I guess, could all be encompassed in one of the first films I ever did. They are storytelling, having a community, trust, and taking risks. I started making the film Harlan County, U.S.A. I started by filming rank-and-file coal miners in a movement called Miners for Democracy, where they were going to change their union and get rid of corruption. And they did it, and they won, and one of their mandates was to organize the unorganized, and their first commitment was to Harlan County, Kentucky.

Now, Harlan County, Kentucky had been known as one of the most anti-union places since the thirties, in fact, they called it Bloody Harlan County. You lived and you died by your gun. And of course, that was the place I was going to go to film. So, I went down to Harlan County with my ragtag crew. I had a cameraman, I did the sound, and we had an assistant cameraperson, and we were shooting sixteen millimeter then, and we showed up at the picket line and we thought, "Ah, they're just going to love us and trust us and be so happy that we're there." But no, that wasn't the case. They didn’t know where we came from; the women didn’t even tell us their right names. They called themselves Florence Nightingale and Martha Washington. But they left a door open for us. They said, "Be at the picket line tomorrow at five o'clock." So, four a.m. the next morning, we get in the car; we're going down this big mountain known as Pine Mountain. There's no guard rails on the side of it, and there's a car behind us, and the car comes and gets in front of us, and we lose control of our car and it falls over into a ditch. We're all okay, we crawl out of the car and carry our equipment because they've asked us to go to the picket line, and we're going to the picket line.

News travels fast in Harlan County. They knew about the accident, and when we got to the picket line, everything changed. They trusted us; the women ran up to us and told us their names. They took us into their homes; they allowed us to film their most intimate moments. We filmed moments of life and death and birth and strategy sessions and meetings. I remember one meeting, one of the coal miners' wives, her name was Lois Scott, it was her job to say, write down who was going to the picket line the next morning. She went around the room, and then she got to me, and she said, "So Barbara, are you going to the picket line tomorrow?" And I said, "Well of course, Lois. I'm making a film about you. I'm not going to leave a stone unturned." She said, "But I have to know, because I have to write your name down."

For me, that meant we weren't outsiders anymore. We had become insiders; we had become part of that community. Harlan County was a wild ride. We were machine gunned with semiautomatic carbines, women took over the picket line, a miner was killed by a company foreman. He left a sixteen-year-old wife and a three-month-old daughter.

Soon after that, the contract was signed because otherwise, all hell would have broken loose at Harlan County. Everybody was getting their guns, so the miners got the union that they wanted, the United Mine Workers of America, which would allow them to have a decent wage and a safe working condition.

The film then went to the New York Film Festival for its premiere. Miners and their wives came. That same miner's wife, Lois Scott, had just been made secretary-treasurer of the Black Lung Association. Black lung is something that miners get from the inhalation of coal dust, it makes young men old. And she, her job was to raise money, and she thought, "I'm at Lincoln Center, there's two thousand people here. I'm going to fundraise." And there she is, on the stage at Lincoln Center, fundraising for black lung. People from this well-heeled audience on the night of the premiere of my film are throwing ten and twenty dollar bills on the stage, and she's picking them up, and everybody else is picking them up, and I'm standing in the back, sort of laughing to myself, and she doesn't realize she's mic'ed [sic], and she just said, "Barbara, you stop that laughing and you pick that money up and stuff it in your bra. We need it!"

The film was nominated for an Academy Award, and that year, they put all the documentarians together in a row, and when our category came up, we criss-crossed [sic] arms. Then, when they called Harlan County, I just felt these two hands on either side of me, pushing me forward. 

The community of documentary filmmakers is so incredible. We care about each other so much, we look at each others' films, we criticize them, we work on them, and when one of us succeeds, we all succeed. And I think that from the sound of it, and what these two brilliant other speakers have said, that’s what happens here at American University. You guys have probably shared so much with each other. In fact, why don’t you look around at each other and see who those people are that you want to continue working with. Who are those people that had your back, who are those people you can trust with all your insecurities and all your joys, and who are those people that did such fine work on your projects and were great sanity points for you?

We don't make films in isolation. We need a community of people to bring films alive, and hang on to these people, hold them dear. One of the people who's a professor at your university is one of those people to me, I'll hang on to him as long as he lets me, and his name is Gary Griffin. He's one of the great cinematographers in the world. I know that when Gary Griffin is shooting a film for me, he's going to get every nuance, every moment. He's not going to miss a beat, and when we stay up until two, three in the morning shooting, and only "Fuzzy's Tacos" is open in some remote town, Gary's going to be there sharing a taco and a beer with me, and we’re going to talk about our life, we're going to talk about our dreams, we're going to talk about the things that are important to us. Because we never take this journey alone. 

You've just had an incredible time here at AU. I've just been sitting and listening to some of the things that you've accomplished. You have a film going to the Cannes Film Festival. That’s pretty remarkable, and that’s pretty exciting.

Also, forget about the rules. There are no rules. Tell the stories you want to tell in the way you want to tell them. There’s so many voices that need to be amplified, so many stories that will inspire change in ways you can never imagine. Being a filmmaker means more, as we know, than being a casual observer. It means being vital, involved, an engaged participant in the struggles of our times. I know that you will find fun to have with your work. You will make it an adventure. There are so many fascinating stories to tell in this world, and I know that you will be the ones to tell them.

I’m thinking again about the miner’s wife from Harlan County, Lois Scott. She was my role model. Lois approached every day with a fire in her belly, she spoke out when she saw an injustice, she threw herself onto the struggles of her community and beyond. I learned so much from Lois. I learned that in life, you have to be fearless, you have to be joyous, you have to be brave, to stand up for yourself and your family, and to face the challenges that the world throws to us head-on. I hope all of you approach your life and your work with the same passion that Lois Scott did and so many others like her. The world will be better off for it if you do.

And also, there’s a community of filmmakers out there who are awaiting you with open arms. We’re looking forward to seeing the wonderful films that this class of 2010 will make.

Thank you guys from the bottom of my heart, and congratulations.

Introduction by President Neil Kerwin: I’m honored to join with the University community, parents, family and friends in recognizing a very distinguished guest. In granting honorary degrees the University recognizes distinguished individuals whose life work represent the values, the knowledge and accomplishments that are embodied in the mission of this institution. Today we honor an Academy Award-winning filmmaker whose probing documentaries and gripping stories highlight the struggles of ordinary people and encourage us to stand up for what we believe. Dean Kirkman and Senior Vice Provost Kay Mussell will join in the presentation of this degree. The University marshal will escort to the podium Barbara Kopple who will receive the degree Doctorate of Humane Letters.

Introduction by President Neil Kerwin:
Barbara Kopple, you said you hoped your film, Shut Up and Sing, would reach young people and teach them to stand up for their convictions. “Speaking out is what makes you true to your soul”, you said. You have done just that. Speaking out on important issues through an extraordinary cannon of documentary films, examining difficult issues in all of their complexity. You’ve given voice to people whose stories might not otherwise be told.

In Harlan County, USA, and American Dream, your two Academy Award-winners you used your unobtrusive but ever-present approach to show viewers a first-hand account of conflict and sacrifice among striking miners and meat packers. You are unflinching in the face of difficult topics. You won the “Voices of Courage” award for confronting human rights violations in Bosnia, Pakistan and Egypt. In defending our daughters you followed female correspondents into war, profiled the ex-wife of a sniper who terrified Washington, D.C., and examined the impact of AIDS among young people.

Just as much with brighter subjects you’ve given us entertaining takes on Woodstock, the lively entry into the world of High School Musical, and a ride along with Woody Allen as you toured Europe with his jazz band. You said in the documentary film, Camera When Rolling, that you don’t think about where you are taking a film, it’s where these people take you. And they take you to more remarkable places you could ever dream of.

Thank you, Barbara, for creating films that take us to places where we are inspired and moved. Barbara Kopple, by the authority of the Congress of the United States vested in me in the American University Board of Trustees, I am proud to confer upon you the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.

Messages to the class of 2010

Filmmaker Barbara Kopple will speak at the American University School of Communication 2010 Commencement Ceremony

Graduating seniors share experiences and some advice with their classmates.

Check it out