When Barbara Kopple received the Oscar in 1991 for Best Documentary, she was hoping that her film would become that impossible dream: a documentary that people would see. But only now, more than a year later, is her American Dream reaching theaters. The biggest roadblock was an investor who insisted that Kopple return his investment before paying her postproduction costs. ”I had to give him [distribution rights to] all of Europe just so he would let me release the film,” says the director.
But the Scarsdale-bred Kopple, 39, is no stranger to the art of waiting. To document the events of American Dream, her second Oscar-winning film (Harlan County, U.S.A., her 1977 portrayal of a Kentucky coal miners’ strike, was her first), she spent five years and $1 million, and shot more than 100 hours of footage following a group of Geo. A. Hormel & Co. meat packers in Austin, Minn., during their struggle against a proposed wage and benefit cutback. ”I want to watch what people do over long periods of time.” says Kopple. ”I don’t want to miss anything.”
Since opening (it’s currently playing in six cities), Dream has been widely praised, but Kopple worries that critics are making the film sound too depressing. ”To me, it’s not an American tragedy. It’s very uplifting that in this day and age people can stand up and do this,” she says. The workers themselves have embraced the picture. It even played to packed houses during a one-week run in Austin. ”I loved it,” says Jeannie Bambrick, a mother of three who lost her home due to the financial strain of the strike. ”You realize that in this country you can take a stand,” she says. ”It doesn’t always come out the way you want it to, but it’s worth fighting for.”