Who could make an exciting documentary about meatcutters? Barbara Kopple, who won an Academy Award for Harlan Couuntry USA, her 1977 film about Kentucky coal miners, richly deserves the second Oscar she won last year for American Dream, a sympathetic, intelligent documentary about the mid-1980s Hormel meat-packers’ strike, in Austin. Minnesota. Kopple, a wonderfully unobtrusive listener and observer, draws out the betrayal felt by loyal employees whose families had worked for Hormel for generations; the devastating toll of the protracted strike on family and community; the bruising, futile struggles between local and national union officials. Though she’s clearly with the strikers, Kopple is as quick to confront us with the crisis within the labor movement as she is to point up the hollow core of “benevolent” paternalism in company towns.
Two other documentaries being released this winter play imaginatively with the boundaries of the genre. Jan Oxenberg’s funny and affecting first feature, Thank You and Goodnight, intercuts footage of her sick grandmother’s last months with cardboard cutouts and dramatic reconstructions of her family history, punctuated by half-mocking questions about the meaning of life. In Dennis O’Rourke’s “documentary fiction” The Good Woman of Bangkok, a 43-year-old divorced filmmaker (O’Rourke) travels to Thailand to make a film about the sex industry, and falls in love with Aoi (Yaowalak Chonchanakun), the Thai prostitute he’s chosen as his subject. The film is as much a wry reflection on documentary “objectivity“ as it is a stinging exposé of the use of women’s bodies for profit. It’s also unsettling for other reasons: watching Aoi being encouraged by the off-screen O’Rourke to bare her soul and her body for the camera, one wonders who exactly is doing the exploiting.