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Filmmaker Rory Kennedy gets personal for the first—and last—time

Photo: Time and Life Pictures and Getty Images courtesy HBO, License: N/A

Time and Life Pictures and Getty Images courtesy HBO

Ethel provides a more intimate look at the Kennedy family.


Directed by Rory Kennedy

Presented by the Maryland Film Festival at the Brown Center Oct. 1 at 7 p.m. Airs on HBO Oct. 18 at 9 p.m.

Unlike the rest of her politically involved family, documentarian (and daughter of Robert F. Kennedy) Rory Kennedy pursues social justice through film. She produced her first project on pregnancy and the crack epidemic in 1994. Since then, her work has touched on a wide array of topics, from Abu Ghraib to AIDS. With her latest film, Ethel, she turns the camera on her own life, focusing on her mother.

City Paper: Did making a film about someone you know and love change your approach at all?

Rory Kennedy: Well, it was certainly a different experience for me to make a film about my family. It was, I would say, less comfortable, and [it was] challenging in more personal ways. But I also feel like I gained so much from that experience that I didn’t necessarily anticipate. There was something about going through the material and being able to sit down with my mother. I sat down with her for five days and asked her every question I ever wanted to ask. [It was] the same with my siblings. There’s something about having gone through that process that feels very rewarding.

CP: Do you foresee yourself making another personal film like this?

RK: No! [laughs] Absolutely not!

CP: [laughs] Why not?

RK: This is the first and last. You know, because I feel this is the film I wanted to make and I really do want to focus on issues outside of my own experience. I feel like there are so many pressing issues out there in the world that need attention. That’s really my passion.

CP: It seems like being part of a family that’s so intertwined with American history would mean that you end up sharing the people you love with the rest of the world. Was making this film a way for you to have a voice in your own family history?

RK: That certainly wasn’t the intention of it. Really, this project came to me through HBO. [Executive producer] Sheila Nevins really put a lot of pressure on me to make this film. I kept saying, “No, no, no” and she kept saying, “Yes, yes, yes,” and I figured my mother would say no because she hates interviews. She doesn’t like anything about this kind of process and she doesn’t do them, and surprisingly, she said yes. I really was doing it without a particular intention in mind other than to make a film for HBO about my mother, but that said, I think my mother is such an extraordinary person and she’s such a character and I knew her story really hadn’t been told. We had been pressuring her over many years to do a book, to do a memoir or something to document her experience, so I was invested in her story being preserved and out in the world because I think she has a lot to say and to share. And so I think it was really coming ultimately from that perspective and not about my own role in it. I know how to make documentary films, it’s what I do, and she is a great subject and it’s an opportunity to bring her story to the world. It’s less about my role in it, I guess.

CP: For someone who has so much to talk about, your mother shies away from introspection. You mentioned that you were a little surprised that she would say yes to making the film, but did it take a bit of convincing to get her on board?

RK: You know, it didn’t because I didn’t want to be on board! [laughs] I would not have tried to convince her to do it. I was really actually trying to use her so that I didn’t have to keep saying no, but I think if you asked her . . . why she did it, she would say, “I did it because Rory asked me to do it.” And, you know, I think that that’s true, that it’s sort of as simple as that . . . . She was willing to do it, but clearly she did not want to do it. And so we came to kind of an understanding: We both need to just do it. [laughs] But there wasn’t a process of trying to convince her.

CP: You mention that you were reticent, so at what point did you realize that this was something you wanted to go for?

RK: Immediately when she said yes, I thought, I gotta do this. And then I sort of had to wrap my head around the fact that I was going to do this and how was I going to do this, trying to figure out what the best process was going to look like. Initially the film was conceived as a one-hour documentary in-her-own-words film that was really about my mother talking about what she’s doing today as well as the events that she’s lived through. But then, as I went through the archival footage prior to interviewing her . . . it became clear to me that I had to really focus on some of these historical events more deeply than I had initially intended and that I really needed to reach out to my siblings to get their perspective because they also were there every step of the way. I decided to just do my mother and my siblings and not outside “experts” because I felt like I wanted ultimately kind of an intimate portrait that was really coming from the inside out.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Kennedy’s oldest sibling, will be present for the screening on Oct. 1 at MICA’s Brown Center.

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