Call it serendipity, coincidence or a fate, but one of our nation’s most fascinating and inspiring political families happened to produce a gifted filmmaker in Rory Kennedy; her collection of awards include Sundance and Tribeca Audience awards, as well as nominations for Emmys. And she makes films of great social import, dealing with subjects from torture of war prisoners to the tangled web of immigration policy. Perhaps most of all, though, it’s our country’s great fortune that she’s summoned up the courage to tackle her own family’s often painful story.
The result is one of the best documentaries of the year thus far, Ethel. The titular character is, of course, Rory’s mother and the wife of Bobby. She’s one of the most compelling characters you’ll meet on film—whip smart, mischievous, doggedly loyal, unselfish, hilarious. Even now. By focusing on the story of this one member of the family, Rory is able to capture the often-overwhelming epic sweep of the Kennedy saga and make it more manageable and digestible. It helps, too, that she eschews outside commentary and chooses only to interview her own brothers and sisters, as well as Ethel herself. The resulting film is strikingly intimate, especially for a narrative of such historical import. It really does feel as if the viewer has been invited to sit on the Kennedy couch and hear a couple of hours of family stories.
Making the documentary wasn’t initially Rory’s choice. “The idea,” she says, “really came from Sheila Nevins [head of documentary programming at HBO, with whom Kennedy has a longstanding working relationship]. I’ve always resisted doing it, mostly for personal reasons, but Sheila was really pushy about this. She’s a big fan of my mother, they’ve spent some time together and really like each other.”
Still, Kennedy thought she could count on one obstacle preventing the film from being made: “Honestly, I didn’t think my mother would do it. I think she said ‘Yes’ not because she really wanted to do it; it’s not in her nature to want it. But I think she said ‘Yes’ because she thought it was an important film to make. And she trusted me to make it.”
Once Nevins won Ethel over, Rory was trapped. “I thought if she’s going to do it, I have to do it,” she says with a smile and a roll of her eyes. But then she turns serious, perhaps thinking of the reservations she had in the first place. “You know, it was hard. It wasn’t always comfortable. Some of the history is very sad, and it was hard to ask my mother and other members of my family to revisit that.”
But that’s as far as she’s willing to go down that line of questioning. And who can blame her, given the staggering amount of loss the family has suffered? There’s a scene in the documentary where Rory asks her mother about the night Bobby was shot and even then, with her own daughter, Ethel nods and says, “Next question.” The daughter follows in the mother’s footsteps here. There’s a closed-ness that seems almost inevitable with this family.
One thing Rory is open—and downright effusive—about, though, is how amazing a woman her mother is. The film pays tribute to her father, to be sure, but as Rory herself points out, it was Ethel who did most of the child-raising, especially given Bobby’s tragically young martyrdom. For Rory, in fact, Ethel did all of the parenting—Rory wasn’t born until months after her father was assassinated. So while their father was a source of inspiration, obviously, for the children, it was perhaps equally their mother’s commitment to public service that led so many of them to pursue work aimed at changing the world. And Ethel is still active in fighting for peace and justice. “Even today, she’s such a character,” Rory agrees. “She stands up to dictators, she goes on all these human-rights trips, she doesn’t say ‘No’ to anything, and if you say something she doesn’t like she’ll tell you. She’s just fantastic that way.”
That commitment made her a perfect match for Bobby. “There are a lot of people that marry politicians,” says Rory, “and they’re not up for it, Before long they’re like ‘Get me out of here.’ But she was like ‘Let’s go do this. Let’s go do all these things and meet all these people.’ She loves people, genuinely. She’s always going to pursue those adventures. She married my father, who was a politician, and that was exciting and thrilling to her, and so she was able to embrace it.”
And where did Ethel herself get those notions? “I think she has a character base that’s significant,” Rory muses, “and a foundation, and a great sense of self. You know, she was a champion diver, a champion rider, a sail captain. I think she had some strong sense of self because of all of that. And she had a very strong relationship with her parents, and had lots of brothers. It was a very chaotic childhood, but there was also a great sense of love and fun in the family. So I think that really comes through in everything she touches.”
The process of telling her mother’s story made Rory see Ethel in new ways, especially when she began her initial research. “When I went into it I didn’t really appreciate the amount of archival footage that was out there. I was thinking, ‘Where are we going to find all of this?’ And then of course I started to get into the research and there was so much footage. And part of what was exciting was that, at all these great historical events, my mother was always there. Sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in the background, but she’s always in the footage. You get an appreciation of who she is from that footage. I’d like to take credit for it as a filmmaker, but it’s just all there.”
The character that emerged from that footage allowed Rory to tell a very familiar story in a way that feels completely fresh. And it was the very hidden-ness of the story that finally convinced her that making the film was the right thing to do. “I’m so proud of my mother, and I have children, her grandchildren, and part of it was a family history thing. But I also feel she’s this great untold story, she’s such a great character, and she’s lived through so much.”
In another memorable scene in the film, after JFK is elected president, Ethel remembers the family being thrilled because they always saw his greatness, but now the world would see it. “It’s the same thing,” Rory says. “I know how great my mother is, and now the rest of the world will know. It’s exciting to think about sharing her with the world.”