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Documentarian Barbara Kopple: Advice From Behind The Camera

A scene from "Running From Crazy," a documentary about actress and model Mariel Hemingway, granddaughter of author Ernest Hemingway.  (Cabin Creek Films)

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This week one of the most respected voices in the American documentary film tradition visits Boston, bringing her latest film, “Running From Crazy,” and a cache of expertise developed since her first feature documentary, “Harlan County USA,” won an Academy Award in 1976.

Barbara Kopple is the special guest of Emerson College’s third annual “It’s All True” documentary film festival, which includes an evening program of Emerson student films on Wednesday and the Boston premiere of “Running From Crazy” on Thursday.

Here’s some background on “Running From Crazy:”

The ARTery had the chance to speak with Kopple about her early filmmaking days, how she handled the delicate subject of the Hemingway family legacy of mental illness and suicide in “Running From Crazy,” and what wisdom she has for future documentary filmmakers.

Erin Trahan: How do you prepare to make a film like “Running From Crazy?” Did you read or watch all things Hemingway? Or do you prefer to leave some mystery in the process?

Whenever you make a film or ask to make a film, you do research and you find out who the people are on some very peripheral level, like gather a few articles in magazines, [but there’s] nothing deep there. There’s nothing that really gets into the souls of who they are. That’s part of being a documentary filmmaker — you want to go much deeper. As much research as you have, you to be brave enough to give it all up and meet people where they are and let them take you on a journey.

While Mariel Hemingway may be familiar for her acting roles (“Manhattan”) or for a recent shift to health and wellness advocate, the story of her family and especially her sister Margaux will likely be new to the Emerson student audience. How did you find the rare footage of Margaux?

I went to film Mariel in Ketchum [Idaho] and our sound man named Alan Barker, who is terrific, I’ve known him for years, said, ‘Barbara, in 1984 I was a cameraman and I filmed a lot of Margaux. She was going to do a documentary on her grandfather [Ernest Hemingway].’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me? Where is that footage?’ He said he didn’t know and that he’d never seen it.

Our Cabin Creek team just went searching…we found out some of that material had burned in a barn, the rest had been given to a stock footage house. [We found] footage of Margaux interviewing her father, being with her sister, going fly-fishing…

I never told Mariel. I didn’t want the things that she told me about her family to be halted or tainted. She didn’t know till I showed her the film in fine cut. At the beginning, she got very emotional … then she saw her parents. When she saw Margaux, she sat on her chair in disbelief. She said, ‘I understand Margaux’s pain more,’ and that it added so much complexity to the film to have an experience like that.

How would you describe your artistic strengths and weaknesses in your early 20s?

One of the first films I ever worked on was “Harlan.” I was so young, nobody cared whether I did well or if I failed. I figured my parents would see it, friends would see it … the Whitney Museum showed documentaries then and I thought if I was really lucky, maybe I could screen at the Whitney. All I wanted to do was be there and tell their story. I never thought about the end product. I just thought, ‘I want to relate to these people.’

“Harlan County USA” is often required viewing for students of documentary. Which of your other films would you like students to see, to get a complete picture of how your approach has evolved?

All of them! [She laughs.] I don’t know, it’s so difficult to say… “American Dream” [about a worker's strike at Hormel Foods in the mid-1980s], the film that came after it. There I went out again without a nickel to my name. I was standing outside in 60 below with wind chill—we didn’t’ have proper clothes, our [camera] battery would freeze up and we’d have to go in the car and warm up — but the people were beautiful and amazing and very compelling. Dixie Chicks ["Shut Up and Sing,"] “Wild Man Blues,” “A Conversation with Gregory Peck” … just to be able to look inside his life and see what he thought, his frailties. I’ve been lucky and privileged to have been able to do many different kinds of films.

What advice do you give beginning documentary filmmakers about choosing an editor, or cinematographer, specifically?

The camera people I used were either very close friends — we were starting out together — or boyfriends (if you want the truth). It was people who had your back, someone you enjoyed being with, who you trusted. For “Harlan County” the editing room was where I lived! I didn’t have much money. Every day they’d come to my little loft on 11th street and we’d have lunch together, we’d discuss things about the film together … it’s always important to pick people who you consider are the very best and you know.

Is documentary a field you encourage newcomers to join? Can it still be a career?

When I first started, [I’d be at a party and people would ask], what do you do, ‘Oh, I make documentaries,’ and they’d turn away. Now people love documentaries! There are so many outlets for them. CNN just started a whole long form branch with some of the best documentary filmmakers working today. There are so many other places … come up with something you really believe in, and pitch.

It’s funny, for the most part I only hear how impossible it is to make a living, how filmmakers have to have another job or jobs.

That’s not what I’m seeing at all. When I was doing “American Dream,” for example, we had no money in the bank. I didn’t know what to do or how to keep going. One day on set someone said your office is on the phone [and I said] I don’t want to speak to them. They said, ‘You better, it’s important.’ I found out we just got $25,000 from Bruce Springsteen and I burst into tears! You’re not going to be rich being a documentarian. You will be able to make films that last and that’s what important… to leave something behind. There’s the possibility to do that and still eat and pay rent and hire people.

There are a few student films that will screen in the festival that touch on mental illness and suicide in particular. Has making “Running From Crazy” altered how you see documentaries on these subjects?

I’m so glad people are doing films on this and are getting people to talk about mental health. It used to be there was a stigma about breast cancer, AIDS, rape, but the more people talk about it, the more discussion around it, people realize they are not alone.

What single skill would you tell all degree-seeking filmmakers to acquire, pronto?

To learn as much as he or she can about camera, about sound, about editing, so that nobody can tell you that something can’t be done. And to be open … to be able to go around another corner and just go with it.

Kopple will be visiting Emerson filmmaking classes during the festival and attending the evening programs on Wednesday and Thursday. On Wednesday, March 26 at 7 p.m., the Emerson student films will be showing at the Bright Family Screening Room, which is free and open to the public. Kopple’s “Running from Crazy” screens on Thursday, March 27 at 7 p.m. at the Paramount Mainstage. Limited tickets are available by email request to RFCScreeningAtEmerson@gmail.com.

Erin Trahan edits The Independent and is moderating the winter series of The DocYard.