Interactive Media: the first 40 years

A guest post by Brian Winston.

People might remember Barbara Kopple’s Oscar winning documentary Harlan County, USA. It was about a bitter strike in the Kentucky coal-fields in 1974. Most memorably, the company goons were so out of control they even started shooting at the film crew.

But my memory of Harlan County coverage is a little different. It centres on some of the earliest interactive agitational video I know of. I am delighted that, with any luck, I will be able to show some of this material to you at i-Docs.  Apart from being about the same Brookside strike against the Duke Power Company, it doesn’t have much in common with Kopple’s film.

Please don’t misunderstand me. Barbara’s movie deserved its Oscar. It was, as Peter Biskin said at the time, the sort of film before which criticism wilts in the face of authorial good intentions. She deserved the success Harlan County USA brought her as she became one of the few woman direct cinema editors (she had been working with the Maysles) to get to direct herself. But the videos I am thinking of came from a different place altogether.

Barbara Kopple’s Academy Award–winning Harlan County USA unflinchingly documents a grueling coal miners’ strike in a small Kentucky town.

John Gaventa, who was responsible for them, is a political scientist and organiser. He was a working to organise resistance on the coal-field with a dissident group within the United Mineworkers – who were being less than 100% behind the strike. (The left had lost a struggle for the leadership of the UMWA some years earlier.) The level of fear created by the brutality of the thugs the coal-owners had hired made all the usual tools of political dissent, if not impossible, then certainly very dangerous. You couldn’t just call a meeting much less organise a demo. John wanted to breakdown the isolation and terror of the small group of strikers and their families. He turned to the Sony Portapak as an organising tool.

The Portapak, a helically scanned 1/2inch video camera with built in sound and a separate tape deck, had been on the market for nearly a decade when John decided that he could use it with the strikers and their families to hold a virtual meeting. He simply began quietly recording interviews family by family, shack by shack, each time playing the slowly lengthening tape. Although John was the ‘animator’, the tapes were sequentially interactive, their content dictated by the people filmed. They were not designed to fulfil some abstract, ambition about the public interest blah blah blah or even the radical potential of alternative media etc etc. They were designed to give immediate support and strength collectively to the people contributing to them individually. If a broader audience was in view it didn’t envisage anybody other than other mineworkers and their families in Kentucky and across the coalfields of the US.

The original Portapak, introduced by Sony in 1967

Subsequently, John went on to cover other disputes, using the equipment as an organising tool. Eventually he arranged exchanges of tapes between US and Welsh miners, working with Helen Lewis, a major critical scholar of Appalachia and a ‘Welsh filmmaker’ one Richard Greatorex (yup—the cinematographer on Shakespeare in Love, A Knight’s Tale etc etc in an earlier incarnation).

Although I have referenced the Harlan County tapes I have never discussed them properly and I welcome the opportunity to do so at i-Docs this year. I found John again after decades, still at work politically but he hasn’t used video or any newer platform for about 15 years. His original tapes are in the Highlander Centre in Tennessee and the Wisconsin Historical Archives in Madison. They have never been transferred but thanks to John (for permission) and to Susan Williams at Highlander (and a guy I only know as Brad at Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound), a DVD is on its way to me which I hope to share.

Brad writes of the technical challenge involved in dealing with 40 year old material:

I can’t believe it. We had what I would consider a successful transfer of the 1/2 open reel videotape – something even I would consider very satisfactory with no embarrassment. But I can tend to be a perfectionist when it comes to these things.

The first minute and 48 seconds are a little jumpy, but clear up. And the picture sometimes jumps during an edit, but nothing seriously detracting. I baked the tape twice over 48 hours, cleaned it, then exercised it. Good results on the second transfer. Hard to believe that it takes 4 or 5 days to do one tape, all together. Best thing is you can work on other things during the process.

Best part is that material is very fascinating indeed! A half hour of interviews, old time local music performers, strikers, and a speech. You will enjoy this. 

Well, I am not sure about ‘enjoy’. Watching John editing the footage at the NTFTVS in 1975, I can remember getting upset with him when he put some the folk music on the front of one tape. I accused him of wanting to become a bloody documentary filmmaker when I though he was on to something rather more significant. It’s that significance I hope we can discuss at i-Docs.