TORONTO — Two-time Oscar-winning American documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple has her sights set on Canada.
On Thursday, she’ll speak onstage in Toronto as part of her outstanding achievement award retrospective at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.
And her upcoming film looks at families from Syria and Iraq who have come to Canada courtesy of sponsors here.
“I wanted to do a film that was about immigration and the beauty of immigration from this country, when we’re going through such horrors in (the U.S.),” Kopple, who lives south of the border, said in a recent interview in Toronto.
“And I wanted to do it through the eyes of kids.”
Kopple said she’s already shot the film and is nearly finished it. The story focuses on Camp Pathfinder in Algonquin Park, where boys from the Syrian and Iraqi families she follows were able to attend thanks to their sponsors.
“It was the first time any of them had been away from home and they learned to paddle canoes, go tripping, go on portages, swim, integrate themselves with their Americans and Canadians,” Kopple said.
“It’s funny at times — and tragic at times.”
Kopple often fixes her lens on stories of strength through adversity.
Her first Oscar-winning doc, 1976’s “Harlan County, USA,” details a coal miners’ strike to demand safer working conditions in a small Kentucky town. Her second Oscar came in 1991 for “American Dream,” about a strike against wage cuts at a meat-packing company in Austin, Minn.
Kopple’s other projects have included 2006’s “Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing,” about the backlash the country music trio faced when lead singer Natalie Maines publicly criticized the then-U.S. president.
Kopple said she uses “any means necessary” to get access to subjects and situations for her docs, noting: ”If they slammed the door on my face, I’d open it and come in.”
Not that it’s been an easy ride.
“We were machine-gunned with semi-automatic carbines, a miner was killed by a company foreman, women took over the picket line,” she recalled of her time shooting “Harlan County, USA,” which she made with a $12,000 loan, money from her parents and credit cards.
“I was told if I was ever caught alone at night, I’d be killed.”
Kopple’s Hot Docs honour comes as the fest boasts gender parity for the first time, with 50 per cent of this year’s films coming from female directors.
“The barrier to entry perhaps is a little bit lower for documentary than fiction film,” said Shane Smith, director of programming for Hot Docs.
“You can pick up a camera and you can tell a story, and if you can shape a story effectively, you can make a really great documentary.”
Maya Gallus, whose doc “The Heat” is at the fest, said documentaries also don’t cost as much to make.
“Any profession where we don’t require as much financing, you’re going to see more women,” said Gallus.
“But also because it’s more portable, the hours are more flexible. For women who are trying to balance many things, including having a family, documentary can be more flexible than working in dramatic TV series or feature film.”
Kopple said women in the doc world also don’t have to answer to as many top executives, who are often men.
“We just go out on our own and we film and nobody knows what the story is unless we do, and we’re in the edit room putting it together and it’s no pressure whatsoever,” said Kopple.
“The pressure, however, is to get financing. The pressure is to get the people that you make the film about to trust you and care about you, and that’s where all of your might goes and that’s where your thoughts go, because they mean everything to you.”