Rory Kennedy’s Fascinating Account of a Political Dynasty in ‘Ethel’

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Nate von Zumwalt

Documentary filmmaker and Sundance alumna Rory Kennedy’s new film Ethel—titled after the director’s mother and the delightful subject of the film—wasn’t a project she was preordained to helm. In fact, it was a film that Kennedy was regularly prodded to make, and one that she steadfastly resisted.

“I kept saying ‘No, no, no,’ and Sheila Nevins kept saying ‘Yes, yes, yes,’” says Kennedy, referring to the president of HBO Documentary Films and an early advocate for the making of Ethel.

Kennedy’s reluctance was understandable. Up to this point in her career, her documentaries have examined issues like poverty, politics, and human rights—anything but her high-profile family.

“I think if you start out with these [personal] films, you get pigeon-holed and it’s harder to do other types of films,” explains Kennedy. “When I was starting off, I wanted to kind of set off on a path of doing social issue documentaries on things outside my own experience.”

Ethel is a wide-ranging retrospective look at the life of 84-year-old Ethel Kennedy, spanning her upbringing in the staunchly conservative Skakel family and her eventual marriage to Democratic senator Robert Kennedy. With a remarkable aptitude for storytelling, and equipped with unrivaled access to private family archives, Rory managed to fashion five days of interviews with her mother and siblings into a fascinating account of what it was like growing up in the Kennedy household.

But she isn’t afraid to divulge her early reservations about making such an intensely personal film.

“I didn’t feel totally confident about it,” concedes Kennedy. “Now that I’ve been doing this for 20 years or so and have a body of work, I thought that it was a subject that maybe I could tackle.”

The obstacles created by her own doubts paled in comparison to those presented by the film’s to-be star. Rory Kennedy knows as well as anybody her mother’s deep-seated aversion to the limelight, so she approached Ethel with the proposal expecting nothing more than a hasty veto.

“She hadn’t really done an interview in 20… 30 years. And even then when she did one it was a 10-minute interview with Tom Brokaw. She never really explored her entire life in this kind of way, and she’s always resisted the idea of it. So I assumed that she would say no.”

Needless to say, Ethel Kennedy complied, and if the film’s overwhelmingly positive reception is any indication, mothers still know best.

Ethel screened in the Documentary Premieres category at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and marks Rory Kennedy’s fourth Festival official selection. She is a member of the 2012 Sundance Institute Alumni Advisory Board and took some time recently to share insights on her family’s legacy and reflect on her fascinating new film, which airs on HBO on October 18, at 9 p.m.

What was the impetus for making such a personal documentary, and a film so dissimilar to your previous work, at this stage in your career?

I’ve always resisted the idea of doing a documentary about my family, for personal reasons. As you can imagine, being from my family and a documentary filmmaker, there have been various ideas and projects that have come across my desk over the years, and people wanted me to do films on my family, but I’ve always said ‘no.’

But I think also, I felt that my mother has had such an extraordinary life, and is really a kind of an extraordinary character that very few people have had access to or been exposed to. So I was excited to share her story and I also feel that as a filmmaker, now that I’ve been doing this for 20 years or so and have a body of work, I thought that it was a subject that maybe I could tackle. I think that I probably needed that breadth of experience to even feel like I had any means whatsoever to be able to handle it.

How receptive or hesitant was your mother to commit to the interviews?

I know my mother so well, and she really, really hates talking about herself. And she really hated sitting down—period. She doesn’t like to reflect on anything, it’s just so not her nature. She’s somebody who lives in the present and is very active. So to sit and answer questions, and she hates being photographed or videotaped, and getting her hair done—the whole thing is miserable to her (laughs). But that said, she never complained about it.

The interviews with your mother and siblings come across as very revelatory, as if you’re discovering some of these stories for the first time. Were you tapping into a lot of information that was new to you?

I would say there were certainly insights and stories that I learned in the process that I hadn’t heard before. I think there is something really extraordinary about having the experience of being able to sit down with one’s parents and ask them every question you’ve ever wanted to know. That, in and of itself, I think is going to provide some level of insight–and also to be able to sit with my siblings and do the same.

That said, I certainly knew a lot of the stories and the historical events that my family was involved in. And then, within that context you kind of get a sense of the texture in a way that I may not have known before. But then there were a number of things [that I didn’t know], like how my mother bet on horses everyday when she was in college…

Ethel is so visually rich because of the incredible amount of high-quality archival footage at your disposal. Can you delve into the process of gathering archival materials for the film?

I did have a lot of access to the Kennedy Library in Massachusetts, so that’s the source of a lot of that material. And then of course I had access to my mother’s own personal collection of archives and home movies. There were other folks who I tapped into, like her very close friend Art Buchwald would always carry a video camera around, so we were able to go into his attic and pull out a bunch of footage.

There were people who really opened their doors to me in a way that it probably would have been harder if it had been an outside reporter or documentary filmmaker. I think that helped bring a level of depth and richness to the archive, and being able to share footage and photographs that have never been seen before. Certainly the film offers that in a way that I don’t think any other film that’s been done on my family has.

In large part, the film is defined by Ethel’s remarkable presence and wit, and by a portrayal of your family’s dynamics. As a filmmaker, what tricks-of-the-trade did you employ (if any) to achieve the warm tone of the film?

I think it’s really just the nature of my relationship with them. I’m my mother’s daughter and the sister of my siblings. I think being in that position there’s just a familiarity that comes with the territory. And my hope with the film is not just capturing my mother in these historical moments, but really give a deeper insight into who she is, what her character is like, what it was like growing up in my family, and what the culture was like.

The documentary films that you have previously screened at Sundance were concerned with social or political issues. Being that Ethel is a personal film and also so starkly different from your previous work, did you find that your experience at the Festival was different?

Well, it was really great. It’s so nerve-wracking because you’re sitting there in this edit room with a 12-inch monitor and kind of looking at this film, and you’re looking at it over and over again, and—particularly because of the nature of this film and it’s my family and it’s so personal—I had really no perspective. Zero. Nobody had seen it outside of the members of my family and the team who helped me make it. So to walk in and show it in a theater of almost 800 people, and I had 26 members of my family there, it was totally exciting but really nerve-wracking. But then of course the response was so overwhelmingly positive, and wonderful, and warm. It was a moment that I’ll remember forever, and I think it was really nice for everyone in my family.

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