A chat with Barbara Kopple

A Murder in Mansfield is her latest doc

Photo by Cameron Meier

Exclusive to MeierMovies, May 27, 2018

When discussing the greatest and most influential American documentary filmmakers of all time, Errol Morris, Michael Moore, Ken Burns, D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles Brothers come to mind. But there’s another who is equally worthy: Barbara Kopple.

Director of arguably the greatest doc of all time, Harlan County U.S.A., Kopple won the Academy Award for best documentary feature for not just that 1976 masterpiece but also for 1991’s American Dream. Both chronicle the struggles of striking workers, the former in the coal mines of Kentucky and the latter in Minnesota’s meatpacking industry. But the rest of her resume is extraordinarily varied, covering celebrities from Woody Allen to Gregory Peck to Sharon Jones, music, the environment and women’s rights for both television and theatrical release.

Kopple’s latest film, A Murder in Mansfield, is a bit of a departure but still has something in common with all her previous work: an astonishing intimacy with its subject. More than twenty years after the conviction of his father for the murder of his mother, Collier Landry is coming to terms with the tragedy and his own testimony – which helped put his own dad in prison. With Landry’s full cooperation, Kopple’s camera follows him as he explores the impacts of the crime not just on himself but on the town of Mansfield, Ohio, and the people he knew as a child. The doc is a unique examination of the psychological legacy of crime.

I caught up with Kopple at the recent Sarasota Film Festival and asked her what drew her to this project.

“A friend of mine who’s a producer in L.A., who produced American History X: He called me up, and he just said, ‘I have this great friend [Landry], and he has a beautiful story. Would you be interested?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know.’ And he said, ‘OK, talk to him.’ So I talked to him, and he just blew me away because he was such an amazing human being. And I just felt really honored to be able to tell his story. He was so transparent and so, you know – would just tell you anything you wanted to know. And it’s all about the process of trauma and how you find healing for that trauma.”

While most media focus solely on a crime and not the long-term impacts of that crime, Kopple flips the script by concentrating mostly on the repercussions of the 1989 murder and how they shaped Landry into the person he is today.

“I think that’s what makes this unique,” Kopple told me. “He’s just really funny and wonderful and sad and just goes through so much, and people love him so much. We just showed the film in Cleveland, and Mansfield’s just an hour from Cleveland. And so many people came to see him.”

Because Kopple’s films often contain moments that illuminate her stories in unexpected ways, I asked her whether A Murder in Mansfield contained any surprises. While first trying to avoid the question for fear of giving too much away, Kopple then teased me – and those of you who haven’t yet seen the film – by saying, simply, “I got to film him and his father in prison, confronting [each other].”

If that doesn’t pique your interest, you just might not be a fan of documentary filmmaking.

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