Mariel Hemingway never knew her famous grandfather, Ernest, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot four months before she was born. But his ghost — and the spirits of several other Hemingways — have haunted her family for her entire life. Seven members of her extended clan, from Ernest’s father to her sister Margeaux, waged losing battles with mental illness that resulted in suicide, and Mariel herself has wrestled with her own demons. In Running From Crazy, a documentary from Oscar-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple that premieres Sunday at the Sundance Film Festival, Hemingway tries to shed some light on her family’s tragic history and reverse a cycle of violence.
In an exclusive video clip, she takes a plunge into any icy stream. “Looking up at a mountain, listening to a river was the only time I felt sane. In the house, everything felt dead,” she says in the film. “I would often crack ice to jump into cold water. I liked anything that made me feel alive.”
Kopple — who’s famously chronicled the labor movement, Woody Allen, Woodstock concerts, and the Dixie Chicks in her documentaries — was drawn to the challenge of digging beneath the surface of the Hemingways’ mystique. “Mariel herself didn’t really know what the family legacy was all about,” says Kopple. “Nobody ever talked about [Ernest]. Nobody ever read his books. It’s such a personal story. It’s so raw and it’s still really unfolding.”
Ernest Hemingway’s life and death inevitably cast a shadow over everything. (In fact, his Death in the Afternoon plays an important thematic role in the doc.) But Kopple insists that Running From Crazy is the tale of three sisters more than anything else: Mariel, Margeaux, who died of a drug-overdose in 1996, and oldest sister Joan. Kopple’s team discovered little-seen archival footage of the family. “Her family did Wine Time, and we actually get to see it on camera through Margeaux,” says Kopple. “And Margeaux had such a love affair with the camera and you see her honesty and you see her beauty and you see her interviewing her father, Jack, and you see her pain. It’s absolutely mythical and fascinating.”
Mariel, now 51, first shared her reflections on her family’s complicated history in a 2004 memoir, and she’s grown increasingly devoted to speaking out about the issues of depression and suicide. “I think this is what she wants to do in her life, to say that this is not a taboo, this is something we have to speak about,” says Kopple. “If we don’t speak about it with each other, there won’t be any light on it. And I think that’s why she wanted to do it. Mental illness in particular, as we know from what happened in Connecticut and so many other places, is a struggle that requires other people to be there. You can’t face those demons by yourself.”