Kentucky, Cambodia, and points between
Boston-based filmmaker Laurie Kahn possesses an ideal background for a documentarian: a degree in philosophy and experience as a newspaper reporter. She has an eye for everyday details and an insight into their meaning. From the beginning she was drawn to the struggles of the oppressed, working on the PBS series “Frontline: Crisis in Central America” (1985) and “Eyes on the Prize.” Later, she would focus on neglected stories of remarkable women in documentaries such as “A Midwife’s Tale” (1998) and “Tupperware!” (2004). Her latest film, “Love Between the Covers,” reveals the gynocentric inner workings of the romance-novel industry. Here are three films (and one TV series) that guided her way.
“Love Between the Covers” screens Sunday at the Woods Hole Film Festival (www.woodsholefilmfestival.org).
Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976)
Barbara Kopple won an Oscar for this intimate, immersive documentary about a miners’ strike in the Kentucky county of the title. “Barbara and her crew spent years with the coalminers’ families and had remarkable access,” Kahn writes. “It is the story of a community, not just of the men on strike.”
To find stories worth telling, sometimes you don’t even have to leave home. Richard P. Rogers’s short documentary records the world from his SoHo loft apartment. “It was shot in different seasons,” Kahn writes, “quietly capturing the variations of light, the people outside and the weather. On the soundtrack are voicemail messages from Rogers’s longtime companion, who was risking her life shooting the revolution in Nicaragua, and two other women with whom he was having affairs. Beautifully shot, elegantly edited, and brutally revealing.”
Eyes on the Prize (1987, 1990)
Before producer Henry Hampton conceived of this landmark PBS series, as timely now as ever, most documentaries about the Civil Rights movement concentrated on Martin Luther King Jr. and other high-profile activists. As such, they overlooked the complexities of this ongoing struggle. Kahn, who participated in the making of the first six episodes, writes: “All of us felt we had a responsibility to do justice to these stories. We interviewed people who’d never been interviewed, found footage that had been lost or forgotten, and used music that was sung in the places we covered. The experience profoundly shaped me as a filmmaker.”
The Land of the Wandering Souls (2000)
Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh survived the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge genocide, but the rest of his family did not. This documentary tells some of that story, and also shows that the suffering persists 25 years later. Panh “follows the lives of Cambodian villagers hired to dig a ditch across the country for optical fiber cables bringing in the Internet,” writes Kahn. “They work all day, sleep on the ground and barely eke out an existence. I will never forget the scene in which a mother shakes the branches of a tree to catch ants to make soup. It is a parable of the 21st century: the have-nots toiling to enable those who have everything.”