Emmy award-winning filmmaker, Rory Kennedy is the 11th child of Ethel and Robert F. Kennedy, the former US Attorney General, Democratic Senator and brother of President John F. Kennedy. Rory Kennedy spoke to Kylie Boltin about her portrait film, Ethel – a personal and political narrative that intersects the story of her mother with major events of the 20th century.
HBO approached Kennedy to make the film having previously asked her to direct films about her Uncle Teddy Kennedy, her father Robert F. Kennedy and other members of her iconic political family. “I was always absolutely not interested in doing any films about my family, mostly for personal reasons,” Kennedy says. “But Sheila [Nevins, HBO's President of Documentary and Family Programming] was persistent on this one."
Trailer courtesy HBO.
"At the time we had been encouraging my mother to do a book to tell her story because we all know what a character she is. She’s lived through so many extraordinary events in our nation’s history. She’s a human rights advocate, a fighter in her own right and had 11 children. But she was resistant, there was no way she was going to do it. Part of me felt that this story was not going to be told from her perspective unless I do it.”
Born in 1928 into a large Irish Catholic family, Ethel Kennedy (née Skakel) met Robert F. Kennedy in 1945. They married in 1950 and had 11 children together—the youngest Rory, born six months after Robert was assassinated in California while running for President. In her latest film Ethel, Kennedy explores her parents’ relationship, the lessons they bequest their children and the personal side of political history through interviews with her mother, siblings and splendid archival footage.
KB: You have made many films over the past two decades. Was it different making such a personal film?
RK: It’s not my nature to explore things that are so personal to me and my family. I would say that as a whole, we’re not an over-sharing bunch. We’ve never been accused of that. It was hard for me and my siblings and not so easy for my mother either. That said, my mother lived through so many events that we as a nation went through. To be able to explore those events and what was happening on the home front during those times was a story that hadn’t been told.
For example, The Cuban Missile Crisis. My father was really on the forefront of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but what was it like to be my mother to know we were on the brink of nuclear war? My siblings had the opportunity to leave and be protected but they all decided to stay. Or Jimmy Hoffa, I was very familiar with the courage my father had to stand up to Jimmy Hoffa in those hearings but meanwhile my mother and the children were being threatened that they were going to be killed, kidnapped; what was it like to live with that fear and what did it take to stand up to it and support my father during that time?
The film shows your father reflecting deeply after the death of his brother, the President, John F. Kennedy. Did the process of reviewing so much personal and political archival material promote any new understanding of your parents’ lives together and your father’s death?
I went into this film with such an appreciation for my mother and knowledge of her story; what she’s lived through. Reading so many books, talking to all my siblings, talking to my mother, being able to ask them any question I’d ever wanted to ask. The exploration that happened [during the film] certainly deepened my understanding. Some of it was emotionally wrenching for me to go through, but I’m happy I did.
It's surprisingly funny when your mother and siblings speak candidly about their lives. Did you know humour would be part of the documentary before you made it?
I didn’t really - although I think my siblings and my mother are some of the funniest people I know. It’s nice that they were comfortable enough in the interviews to be themselves and to have captured that. I didn’t go into it feeling like I wanted to make a funny film but I do think it's very much part of our culture and how we navigate the world. It’s who we are so it’s nice to be able to bring that to the forefront.
Both Ethel and Robert F Kennedy were social justice advocates and encouraged their children to give back to the country. Did your interest in documentary film stem from these ideals?
I happened into documentary filmmaking after college. I had done a final paper about women and substance abuse and the difficulty they have getting treatment, particularly pregnant women. I decided to make a film about the women I met doing the research because their story was so different to what we were seeing in the mainstream media at the time. I ended up making a film called Women of Substance. I really loved making it.
I grew up in a storytelling culture, Irish Catholic, and I was really interested in social justice. I wanted to make an impact but I wasn’t so interested in electoral politics at the time and I felt that this was a way I could use creative energy and storytelling. I also really loved going out into the field and travelling, meeting new people. I was less interested in sitting in meetings but [rather] going into people’s homes and having a sense of how they lived. What they were going though. I just loved everything about it: the creative process in the editing room, finding the story, being able to tell that and then sharing it once it’s completed. Seeing how it can impact people’s lives and maybe open a little more compassion or understanding of these complex social issues.
The documentary film, Ethel debuts in the US on Thursday, October 18th on HBO.
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