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Q and A: Barkley Marathons documentary directors

Frozen Head State Park

Frozen Head State Park

Together Timothy Kane and Annika Iltis produced and directed “The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young”. The documentary about one of the world’s toughest, most mysterious races, recently was the audience award winner for documentaries at the Austin Film Festival.

The film will be showing during Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival in Toronto at the end of April and in early May.

We talked with Kane and Iltis about the film, the race’s mysterious organizer Lazarus Lake and the upcoming film festival.

Canadian Running: The documentary is about the Barkley Marathons. This is a notoriously mysterious event. Why did Lazarus Lake let you make a documentary about it?

Annika: We worked with Laz from the very beginning. Once we found out about the race and had done some research on it there was no way we were going to make this film if he wasn’t OK with it. We wanted him to be a part of it and we wanted to follow whatever guidelines that he had for us in terms of making us as invisible as possible so that people could enjoy it and not have our filming impact their experience in any negative way.

When we finally tracked him down, the first thing he said when we mentioned we were interested in making a documentary and asked for his permission to come to the park a shoot was “Well, it’s a public park. I can’t stop you from coming” which wasn’t the response we were thinking we would get.

Once we got down there he sort of was like “Oh, you guys showed up. I guess you’re going to make this thing.” There was a sort of gaining of trust with us and once he knew what our intentions were.

Canadian Running: Lazarus seems to be a fairly eccentric character. Does the movie explore how he got into this and why he continues to hold the event?

Tim: We spend the first few minutes exploring something about Laz that a lot of people might not know and we got some comments early on that it’s almost better to leave Laz to be mysterious. Laz is mysterious no matter what and we spend the first few minute with him in the movie specifically to show you that he has this pedigree in the running community. He’s not just some guy who decided to do this thing that he doesn’t have any experience with and doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He’s been an ultrarunner for many, many years, long before it became a thing and he loves running, he loves walking, he loves hiking and he has a special place in his heart for that specific terrain, so we spend those minutes kind of giving him the time to explain to the audience that he has the right to do what he’s doing. From there we go into the Barkley itself.

Canadian Running: How does your documentary fit into the Hot Docs film festival as a whole?

Annika: Hot Docs is, I think, the largest documentary film festival in North America and it does and amazing job of curating films from all over the world from a lot of different perspectives. I think our film is unique in the sense of it takes this very secretive, cult-like thing that people come from all over the world to attend which I would say most people in this country don’t know about – it’s more well-known in Europe – and gives you a look into something that you might never know about. I think that’s what I love about documentaries, is getting an insight into something that you would never know about and coming out of it with a different perspective or having learned something or just having that experience.

I think of people like ourselves. We’re not really sports-minded people and so we made the film really to have an engaging story and a really interesting, character-driven film that anyone, even if you aren’t interested in sports or don’t really care about running, can go in and see and really come out of it with, hopefully, having seen a great film. Hopefully people will enjoy it.

Tim: I think there’s a problem on the surface where people may read the title or maybe even see a clip, they may put this in a category of “Well it’s just a running movie. It’s a linear thing beginning to end and it’s just about somebody winning a race.” As Annika said, we never set out to make that kind of movie. We set out to make, in our minds, a documentary and a transformative experience not just for ourselves but certainly for the audience too. We want to give insight into this little slice of life that happens deep in the woods of Tennessee which most people don’t know about. The themes that the movie deals with are universal.

Annika: And it’s funny. It’s a really funny film. It’s a very dark film, and I think maybe a lot of people going to see it aren’t always going to expect that and so, when we premiered – we’ve had just a couple screenings now – we kind of preface the film with that it’s OK to laugh because sometimes people see a documentary and expect serious or sad. I think our film goes outside those borders and there are a lot of laughs and some tears. You get the whole gamut. It’s a fun, dark, weird, enjoyable film.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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