Filmmaker Rory Kennedy is the youngest daughter of Robert F. Kennedy and has made over 35 documentaries covering topics ranging from poverty to politics to human rights. Her latest feature Ethel is a personal look at her mother Ethel Kennedy who raised 11 children on her own following the assassination of RFK in Los Angeles in 1968. Yet she told Deadline this weekend at Sundance where her HBO-produced film is premiering that she was initially hesitant to take on a film about her mother. The 97-minute doc includes rarely or never-before seen footage of Robert and Ethel Kennedy and interviews with her brothers and sisters. Subjects include the Cuban missile crisis, the civil rights movement and the assassinations of both President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Rory spoke with me after the film’s debut here:
Deadline: So what changed your mind about taking on a film about your mother?
Kennedy: The idea of a film had occurred to me, but it was really Sheila Nevins at HBO who knows my mother who reached out to me. I had long been resistant to doing a documentary about my mother for personal reasons. And I thought there was no way she’d want to, but then I asked her and she said yes. I was both excited and daunted because of all the implications I had to wrap my head around. I also felt that if my mother was up to do something that is against her nature like this, then I would. I felt she was doing this for larger reasons, and I figured I should do so too. She’s very reticent normally to speak publicly unless it’s for some cause or for President Obama. It is against her nature.
Deadline: For Ethel, did you consider not putting on the director’s hat since you obviously are so close to your subject?
Kennedy: No, no, I would never dream of that because I think my mother agreed to do this because it was me and I was directing it. If my name is on it, I’m going to do it.
Deadline: What was your plan for telling this story and how did it change along the way if at all?
Kennedy: My initial vision was to do a documentary only about my mother with just one single interview of her alone. But after going through the archival footage, it was striking how much she was there every step of the way through the [Jimmy] Hoffa hearings, campaign stops, the [JFK] inauguration, at the civil rights movement etc. So when I got a greater appreciation of that after going through the footage, I realized it had to be a bigger part of the movie. I was curious then about her insights to this period. I was also surprised that a lot of the footage had my siblings there, so I wanted to get their insight because they were on the front lines of these historical events.
Deadline: Did you consider doing interviews with your other relatives? There are a lot of Kennedys.
Kennedy: Yeah [laughs] once you open that door you can lose focus. The movie was not only getting to know my mother but also getting to know my siblings. One thing also that I’ve come to appreciate as a documentary filmmaker over the years is that the narrower you go the more meaningful and powerful a film can be. So I did set out to contain it because there’s so much about my father and history.
Deadline: This film isn’t an overtly political film itself, but it does capture a political story. Your many other films focus on a range of issues from Abu Ghraib, to hunger, the death penalty, AIDS and more. What role does film play in both spotlighting these stories and even providing solutions?
Kennedy: I’ve made them and I see the impact films can have on people. It’s how I’ve chosen to spend my life because I think it’s meaningful. There are stories like Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (2007) for instance. A lot of the information in that film is already out in the world, but when you put it all together into an hour and a half narrative, it’s meaningful because it puts the puzzle together. Often people only see parts of a story at disconnected times on the news or elsewhere [in pieces], but a documentary weaves the parts into a [narrative]. Also, documentaries offer the human side of these stories and the emotional empathy that opens up by watching people go through these struggles, which are experiences an audience can have that may impact them in a meaningful way. And this is something that is particular to documentaries – this medium – more so than others.
Deadline: How do you hope this film will impact audiences both here at Sundance and later on HBO?
Kennedy: This film is not an advocacy film, it is about my family and I love my family and I think they’re all so extraordinary in their own ways. I’m happy to share my mother with the world. Doing this does capture a time in our history when politicians stood for something, and not just when they were in front of the camera, but also how they lived their lives in every step of the way. I think this can be inspiring. I hope that this can show that things can be different.