As I was waiting for Rory Kennedy to arrive to interview her about the revealing and thoughtful documentary she directed about her mother Ethel, high up at the HBO offices, overlooking Bryant Park, a Red-tailed Hawk cruised by to greet us. When I passed on to Rory the beautiful bird's greetings, she mentioned her brother Bobby, (Robert F Kennedy Jr) who holds a yearly Birds of Prey Day in upstate New York, and is an ardent environmentalist. Rory's brother also serves as vice chair and chief prosecuting attorney for Riverkeeper and chairman of Waterkeeper Alliance.
Nature is a big part of the Kennedy childhood experience through their mother Ethel, as we see in the film. As for politics, she also made sure, the children knew what their father was up to.
Anne-Katrin Titze: Your movie Ethel is a declaration of love, rarely seen on film. I was trying to think of another documentary like it, where the filmmaker shows such love for her family.
Rory Kennedy: Oh, that’s nice. It wasn’t really set out to be that. It was just to kind of tell my mother’s story. And it’s nice to hear that that comes through.
AKT: You show and protect. When you expose, it is never in a way that lacks love. You strike a wonderful balance. Did you make a conscious decision to start with the great family smiles?
RK: No, I haven’t even thought about it in these terms either, but I wanted to sort of set a tone in the beginning of the film about both my mother’s resistance to the idea of the film and kind of her positioning. I think it plays itself out throughout so I wanted to have that going through the gates from the beginning. And introducing my siblings, I wanted to do that early on, so you would know who they were, and get a sense of them and have a feel that it’s a little bit behind the curtains.
AKT: François Truffaut made a point of that. Show the protagonists right away, and name them, so that everybody knows. What you also show is how close family life and political life were intertwined.
RK: It was not a statement but to show how my mother and father chose to raise the children. And, you know, I think part of it, honestly, was that my father really genuinely liked being with the kids. He was so busy and it was a busy time and the best way to do that was to bring the kids to him. And so that’s often what they did. Incorporating the children in going to the hearings, you know, the Hoffa hearings, to the White House and to the Senate. To really incorporate them, on the campaign trail, the many many campaign trails that they were on and do it in such a way that was fun for the kids. So they really enjoyed it.
AKT: For the structure of your film, you strike such a good balance between the private and the public. How did you go about structuring this?
RK: One of the people I really admire is Doris Kearns Goodwin, the historian. She always brings a nice balance. She does a lot of biographies but she integrates both what was happening historically with what was going on in their personal lives and I really like how she did that. I thought about her and her books a lot when I was thinking about the structure of the film. And then it was just kind of having a feel for when to break away. Deal with some political issues and then maybe it was time to see what was going on at home, and then go back to what was going on politically. It was really just trying to get a feel for that, as we were editing it. It was not a film that had been written before we got into the edit room. It was very much something that we figured out along the way.
AKT: It flows seamlessly. Did you think about the timing of the film? You must have been about the age your father died, when you started the documentary.
RK: I was aware of it.
AKT: That you were older than he ever was?
RK: I was aware of that along the way, but it was not intentional. The timing was coincidence. The film came along because HBO, Sheila Nevins, asked me to do it. I was resistant at first and then I asked my mother, who I thought would say no. And then she said yes.
AKT: Which is so great. There you are, thinking you're safe. Ever the surprising woman. In a way, the whole film is centered on this surprising yes. The scenes where you talk about your mother "stealing" the starving horses really struck a chord with me.
RK: Yes, she has such a good heart, my mother. She sees something that she thinks is wrong, and she tries to right it. That's how she goes through her life and always has. And I thought that story was revealing in that way. It was just instinctual for her.
AKT: The Kennedy family's connection with nature really comes across.
RK: There is a love of animals that we all share, I think.
AKT: One of the main themes in Ethel is not surrendering to catastrophe. What were some of the reactions when you showed the film at Sundance?
RK: It was very positive and it was a nerve-wracking experience for me because I had just seen it on a small monitor and shown it to, a handful of people. And then bring it to Sundance. I think I had 26 family members there, many of them had never seen it before. The first screening, I think, the theatre seated 780 people. So, a huge theatre, totally packed, with my family there, showing it to them and showing it with them was nerve racking. And then the response was really overwhelmingly positive and wonderful and, you know, they were really receptive to it. People were really moved by it, so I was greatly relieved.
AKT: You are in such a special position, because your family is not just your family, but so much a part of American and world history. It's all you know, of course. For you it's perfectly…
AKT: Many people have an emotional stake in the Kennedy myth.
RK: I think, there are so many parallels between what my family went through on a very personal level and what our country has gone through. And, I guess, my intention with the film at some point was to try to tease that out. At the same time there were these historical moments that we experienced together as a nation. We are also a family with the same needs and desires as everybody else in the world. The differences, you know, that divide us as a country, I think are much smaller than what unites us and what we share. And I hope that the film kind of brings that out.
AKT: This film is very much a departure from the kind of political films you've been doing before. It is brave to make such a personal film.
RK: Yes. I'm going to go back to what I was doing before.
Rory Kennedy's distinctive, feature length documentary tribute to her mother and her relationship to Robert F Kennedy, the father she never got to meet, goes far beyond and more deeply into the childhood memories of a family, we all thought we knew so well.