Rory Kennedy has made documentary films about the torture at Abu Ghraib, Appalachian poverty, and the AIDS pandemic. But her biggest challenge thus far has been Ethel, a film she made about her mother, wife of Robert "Bobby" Kennedy and grand matriarch of the Kennedy clan.
Rory had been approached multiple times by HBO producer Sheila Nevins, with whom she had worked on a number of projects, to make a film about her own family. Rory initially resisted, but said she would leave it up to her mother, assuming that the attention-shy Ethel would say no.
"My mother really doesn't like doing interviews and really doesn't like sitting in one place for a period of time or being asked questions or asked to reflect on her life," Rory explains.
She was shocked, then, when Ethel agreed. "I asked her later, why did she say yes and she said, 'Well, because you asked me to. Of course I'll do anything you ask me to,'" Rory recalls. "So, she jumped in, and then I felt like I needed to jump in."
Rory filmed her mother and siblings for five days of questioning at their Hyannis Port, Mass., compound. The resulting documentary chronologically traces Ethel's childhood, her courtship with Bobby, the Kennedy family's rise in national politics, and the assassinations of President John Kennedy and Bobby (the deaths of Ethel's children Michael and David are mentioned but never fully addressed). The film ends on the note of Ethel's continued commitment to the social justice causes near and dear to her husband and how she continues to inspire her children.
"My brother Max said it well [in the film]," says Rory: "Our parents gave us the gift of community service, not the obligation."
While much of her life Ethel happily discusses on camera—she is particularly effusive when talking about her family—at times she bats Rory's questions away.
"All this introspection, I hate it," Ethel says in the film when Rory presses her to reflect on Bobby's posthumous influence on her life.
"So much of her life is incredibly joyful and wonderful, but there are a lot of really sad moments and it's not something that any of us particularly like to talk about in a public forum," Rory says. "So that I knew that was going to be hard for me to ask some of those questions of my mother and my siblings. That for me was the hardest part of the filmmaking process."
To its credit, she says, her family was "extraordinarily supportive" through the process, but she adds, "There's an added responsibility that I felt going into this because it was my family. For better or worse, because of the personal nature of it, I felt a certain obligation to do it right."
Anecdotes galore reveal Ethel to be a lively, compassionate, gregarious mother and wife. Pregnant for 99 months of her life, the lengths she went for her children—bringing them along the campaign trail, playing flag football and sailing with them, and even shipping in a seal from the National Zoo to play with the kids in the backyard—are the foundation of the film.
Ethel is littered with Kennedy memorabilia—family portraits, home videos, letters from Bobby to the kids—that humanize Camelot. But often, even the most intimate of family lore stops short of being truly accessible; after all, who can really relate to what it is like to frolic the White House after "Uncle Jack's" inauguration? The Kennedy clan fully cannot escape air of privilege that comes with once being America's royal family.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Ethel are when Ethel's personal concerns for her family collide with the national figures and events that now reside in American history textbooks. Ethel and her children recall Bobby Kennedy standing up to Joe McCarthy, staring down Jimmy Hoffa, rallying for Cesar Chavez, and their decision to stay in Washington during the Cuban missile crisis. Hearing about these events was especially enlightening for Rory, born six months after Bobby's death, wasn't alive for most of the Kennedy-high period.
"There are obviously the historical events my father was involved in [with] my mother and my family. I knew what happened, I read a lot of books about them," says Rory, "But there's something to be said to really try to understand what was going on internally with my family during those times."
To relive these watermarks of the mid-20th century is where Ethel finds its strength. As Rory explains it, "The parallels of what my family was going through was so consistent with what so many people were dealing with in the country—there's something ... affirming about that process and feeling like you can speak to people in a wider, bigger way."
Ethel premieres Thursday, October 18 at 9 p.m. on HBO.
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Tierney Sneed is associate editor of U.S. News Opinion. You can follow her on Twitter or reach her at email@example.com.