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Barbara Kopple Shines Light on Mental Illness in Running From Crazy

Running From Crazy

Jeremy Kinser

‘Running From Crazy’ makes its UK premiere at the Sundance London film and music festival this week at the O2.

Fighting in Italy on the front lines of World War II, dueling with a charging bull in Pamplona, wrangling with a marlin off the deep-sea coast of Cuba—these are larger-than-life images frequently conjured up by the mention of the name Hemingway. Running From Crazy, Barbara Kopple’s compelling new documentary, may change that perception. The two-time Academy Award-winning filmmaker (for 1976’s Harlan County USA  and 1990’s American Dream, which also swept Sundance’s three documentary categories) offers a much more intimate, yet audacious portrait of the legacy of the  legendary writer. Filled with shocking revelations and incorporating captivating archival footage, Kopple weaves an intricate portrait of Ernest’s three granddaughters Muffet, an artist; Margaux, the late fashion model; and Mariel, the actress. All have wrestled in different ways with the family’s turbulent history of depression, mental illness, and an alarming number of suicides.

So much has already been written and filmed about the colorful and sometimes tragic lives of the Hemingways. What interested you in making a new documentary about them?

BK: I knew about Mariel and Margaux and Ernest and I knew some of the books and the films and a smattering of the family tragedies they’d gone through, but I didn’t know much more than newspaper headlines and magazine covers. What I do with a film is struggle to get under the surface to see the story behind the story and see what makes people tick and why they make the decisions they make. As I got to know Mariel a bit I realized that that’s what she’s doing in her life. She’s struggling to dig beneath the surface of her own family history. I was thrilled to be on this journey with her.

At one point in the film Mariel tells her daughter Langley that she didn’t want her to become burdened by the family’s history of mental illness and suicide. Is that why she decided to reveal her story?

She wanted to bring issues of mental illness into the light because it’s one of the last taboos in our society. We need to talk about it and shake off the fear and judgment that’s often associated with mental illness and start the healing. Most of the Hemingway grandchildren don’t know anything about Ernest. It’s almost as if it’s too painful to talk about or too much hurt to pass on from generation to generation. Mariel didn’t want to talk to her daughters about it because she didn’t want to put this big burden on them of depression and mental illness and suicide. She wants to transform these relationships with her daughters and now she’s talking about it. She wants them to understand it.

The archival footage from the documentary Margaux was making must have been a godsend. Did you know about this before you began making your film?

BK: No. Mariel had no idea this footage existed. Whenever you’re looking for archival footage there’s a treasure hunt. Most of the time you have leads that go nowhere. But once in a while you find gold. We had so much wonderful material of Margaux, who, in a sense, had a love affair with the camera. You see her beauty and honesty in this footage. It added so much depth and context to the story of these three sisters. It just brought us into that world and allowed us to see how they lived in such a powerful way. It was a treasure, a total treasure.

Documentary filmmaking has evolved since you began your career. What effect has reality television had on the industry?

BK: For me I feel the result of reality television is fine. If we can see more and more how people think and relate to each other —even if it’s somewhat manipulated and whether we personally find it repugnant — is fascinating. It’s really putting documentaries out there. People love to see documentaries on a screen and to see and feel something that’s real is so key and so important.

What do you want audiences to take away from Running From Crazy?

BK: I want people to really get to know Mariel and see a positive and uplifting story. It reveals family secrets and very difficult stuff but also has so many intimate moments and genuine emotions and real interactions and you can see the wonderful relationship she has with her daughters. It also takes the issue of mental illness into the light so people can reflect on it and talk about it.

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