Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Rory Kennedy's (named after Rory, the last of the Irish Kings) revealing and thoughtful documentary on her mother, Ethel, is a declaration of love, rarely seen on film. "Why should I have to answer all these questions?" Ethel Kennedy asks her daughter, after she agreed to be filmed for the documentary on her life, to everyone's surprise, as Rory told me during our interview.

Glimpses into the family past via snapshots, home movies, and archival footage, introduce us to the Kennedy family smiles during the opening credits, before we settle in Hyannis Port, in the present.

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The journey into the family past, begins in the winter of 1945, on the slopes of the ski resort of Mont Tremblant, Canada, where Ethel Skakel and Bobby Kennedy first met. His sister Jean was in college with Ethel, and they plotted to bring the two families together.

In the documentary, Ethel's children comment on their parents' similar backgrounds, shaped by their culture and religion, both from "wealthy, large, Irish-Catholic families".

The differences are presented as inspiring and complementing. The Skakels' comfort with nature and a more chaotic household, as compared to the Kennedy's dinner at 7:15, not 7:16 routine. Even young Ethel's lack of "consciousness of politics", comes across as charming family lore. The little and big myths, true or false, are fascinating to see when they are about a family so much in the public eye and so linked to American and world history.

Some of the most intimate observations are made when Rory asks her siblings to recall specific events. Her children speak frankly about their mother's suspect culinary exploits (Bobby Jr describes bananas being prepared in an unappetising way.) At these times, we feel as if we are sitting in Ethel's house, as a member of the family. Joe, the 9th born, recounts a birthday present their father gave their mother one year, "a guy wrapped up in ribbons with a gigantic pink bow". It turned out to be Gene Kelly, who, once unwrapped, danced with the birthday girl. Courtney's comments about their mother's wish that the children "should know about farm animals and how they lived", is illustrated by Rory's choice of a black and white photograph, in which we see the children in pyjamas and dressing gowns in a stable, including a baby in a crib and farm animals, which resembles a nativity scene.

Ethel's "healthy disregard for authority in all its forms" is celebrated, and so is her compassion. The Kennedy family's love of nature is recounted through their mother's rescue of horses she saw suffering and the many creatures scurrying around their house and lawn as the children were growing up. Oldest daughter, Kathleen Kennedy recounts: "Mummy and Daddy brought in a lot of horses. We would get up early in the morning and ride over to the CIA, which was nice."

As for politics, Ethel also made sure they knew what their father was up to. From his work for Joseph McCarthy's Senate sub-committee hearings, which he became disturbed by and quit to help author the report used to censure McCarthy, to the Hoffa racketeering hearing, we see how close family life and political life were intertwined.

A reward, after John F Kennedy's successful presidential campaign, which the children joined whenever they could, Bobby Jr remembers vividly after the swearing in of their uncle: "That was our first visit to the White House… and Daddy slid down the banisters, he had us all slide down the banisters." Kathleen remembers the special Kennedy girl campaign dresses and Ethel confirms her late husband's desire to not have too much of a separation between the children and the grown-ups.

Ethel goes far beyond and more deeply into the childhood memories of a family, we all thought we knew so well, into the private world of a mother taking the helm, steering a family towards stability the best she knew how.

DOC NYC screening: 6:45 PM, Fri. Nov. 9, 2012 - SVA Theater; Scheduled to appear: Director Rory Kennedy

Reviewed on: 09 Nov 2012
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Documentary about the director's mother, Ethel Kennedy.
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Director: Rory Kennedy

Writer: Mark Bailey

Year: 2011

Runtime: 97 minutes

Country: US


Sundance 2012

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