The Barkley Marathons; I bet you’ve never heard of the long distance trail run competition. Neither had I before I saw the poster for this new documentary with its intriguing tag line: The race that eats its young. Sounds more like a horror film than a sports doc. And the poster’s artwork is reminiscent of a Wes Anderson film. With all that going for it, I just had to check it out. And surprisingly, I was kind of right on both my initial impressions, which is a good thing in the most interesting ways.
Having had no idea about the Barkley, or the sport of Trail Running I didn’t know what to expect from a film on the subject. After all, how interesting can it possibly be to anyone outside the realm of athletes dedicated to that specific niche sport? But it seems the directors; Annika Iltis and Timothy James Kane (two long time professional camera assistants working in TV) didn’t know anything about this intriguing little world either before they decided to make the film. According to Kane (Iltis was unfortunately unavailable for my interview) the two started out wanting to make a movie that would allow them to branch out and showcase their own abilities as filmmakers. And they accomplish that quite well with a documentary that really draws the viewer in through the most basic human trait: curiosity.
Inspired by a magazine article on the subject the two decided to find out more about something they knew absolutely nothing about, beyond the realms of Hollywood and the Los Angeles lifestyle in general. Because of their own perspective their approach to the topic does not assume any knowledge on the audience’s part (a pitfall for the average documentary). Instead the film is a logical presentation of the who, what, where, why and how of the subject, complete with on site coverage of the annual event. This refreshing and mindful approach serves its subject well, and keeps the viewer in tandem with the camera, as if everything is presented from the audience’s point of view rather than that of being along for the ride with an insider. There is a distinct difference in those two approaches, and one that really makes The Barkley Marathons a fun and compelling experience regardless if one has any interest in the sport or not.
I’m not one for spoilers, so I won’t be going into much detail. What I can tell you is that you’ll find yourself being drawn in deeper and deeper as the story builds, virtually hanging on the edge of your seat as the surprisingly dramatic tale takes it’s twists and turns. There’s plenty of humor and lighter moments with the colorful inhabitants of the base camp where runners check in after every completed circuit, but you’ll be particularly impressed with the bodily damage the participants inflict upon their selves in the pursuit of a personal best against the elements. You’ll route for odd ball characters who range from first time “virgins”, to repeat competitors who enter knowing they will never complete the run but migrate annually to a remote part of Tennessee for the camaraderie that comes with the physical and mental challenge unique to the Barkley. Front-runners will fail; defeated by the elements, and an unknown up and comer will emerge to challenge the existing champion. The final moments are exciting as we wait to see if a new record will be made in a twenty five year old competition that has seen only ten finalists.
Winning all sorts of accolades at festivals that feature “Trail” films (who knew?), The Barkley Marathons may just be spearheading widespread acceptance with a cult genre, much like that of the surf films of the 1960s and 70s. Like co-director Kane noted, with the abundant beauty inherent in shots featuring such rich topography these films inspire rabid fans. Although The Barkley Marathons is far short of what is known as “trail porn” due to its inclusion of the gritty reality of the competition. And as Kane went on to say, if the film were glossier it would come off as false, lacking the reality of the harsh extremes of the race. That is an observation to which I couldn’t agree with more.
A particularly notable aspect of the movie is the abundant number of cameras utilized through out the filming process. Fortunately, the two camera savvy directors recognized ahead of time the need for coverage and employed as many independent camera operators as they could entice to the remote hills of Tennessee. Although the most sophisticated camera is a 5D and the others down grade from there, there is no image within the film that is less than professional – a true testament to the skills of the operators. And one of the race participants graciously allowed the use of the footage he shot from his own chest mounted GoPro. Remarkable footage indeed, considering each shooter was out in the field for twelve or more hours at a time across a sixty hour time period, while keeping out of site of the competitors. One wannabe crew member actually showed up only to quake at the reality of the situation in which he would be shooting and quickly left (quitter).
With this remarkable first film under their belts it will be exciting to see what these two young filmmakers will come up with next. So-called sophomore films can be disappointing, but I do not fore see such a problem in the case of Annika Iltis and Timothy James Kane. Whether it is a narrative feature or another documentary film I’m sure the two directors will have plenty of offers to assist them and guide them through that awkward stage. Perhaps then we will have the satisfaction of seeing them justifiably in contention for an Oscar. Sadly it won’t happen with The Barkley Marathons. Iltis and Kane were unaware of the appeal the film would ultimately have and lacked the finances to open the film where necessary in order to qualify the film. In fact, you’re only going to able to see this film via VOD, which I think is particularly fitting since you’re going to want to be as comfortable as you can be while watching such an exhausting race.
I encourage you to see it now, perhaps as a break from all the holiday, Oscar vying films that are out there now. See it, and tell your friends about it. Then you’ll see and they’ll see that The Barkley Marathons is about people who won’t give up even when facing insurmountable odds made by people of the same ilk, made to inspire others who live the same way. Who knows, maybe The Barkley Marathons will be the next inspirational film shown to sales people, executives and small business owners alike. After all, it’s about those with the will to succeed no matter the cost. That’s just about as entrepreneurial as it gets, and speaks to the core of American values. That’s a lot for a little documentary. But then again, that’s exactly what documentaries are supposed to do – inspire greatness. The Barkley Marathons achieves this goal beautifully.