Film Society opens season with ‘Ethel’

Rory Kennedy, youngest daughter of Robert F. Kennedy and a new Malibu resident, will be on hand to talk about her new documentary.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

The Malibu Film Society opens its fourth season Thursday evening with a sneak preview of the forthcoming HBO documentary by a Malibu filmmaker who might be more famous for her name than for the slew of Emmy Award-winning, socially conscious films she has produced and directed.

Rory Kennedy is debuting her documentary, “Ethel,” about her mother, Ethel Kennedy, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. It is due to air on HBO, one of Kennedy’s regular broadcasters, in October. Kennedy will be joining the audience for a Q & A afterward.

Kennedy has helmed a number of documentaries covering social issues from AIDS to nuclear disaster to poverty in the American south. Her film, “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib,” won the 2007 Primetime Emmy Award for Best Documentary. Her 2005 film “Street Fight,” about a hard-fought Newark mayoral election, was nominated for a Best Documentary (Feature) Oscar.

Ethel Kennedy was pregnant with Rory when her husband, Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, just after winning the 1968 California Democratic primary in his run for president.

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In “Ethel,” Rory chronicles not just her mother’s tragedies and triumphs, but offers a view of a remarkable life story, as told by her eight surviving siblings (brother David died of a drug overdose in 1984 and brother Michael died in a skiing accident in 1997). This film showcases the first time Ethel Kennedy sat down for an interview in 25 years.

Rory agreed to a phone interview before her film screens in Malibu next week.

This was the first time ever your mom sat down to tell her life’s story. Why did she agree to do this now?

I think if you were to ask, she’d probably just say, “Because Rory asked me.” Mom doesn’t like to focus on the past. She is in terrific health and lives squarely in the present.

Your mom married into this huge, dynastic, patriarchal family, then had 11 kids. How did she keep her own identity?

Well, she was from this huge, chaotic Catholic family so she was used to seeing her own path and adapting it to her circumstances. My mom’s family encouraged questioning authority so this was a comfortable role for her growing up. The Kennedys were sort of the opposite. I mean, when dinner was served at 7:00, you better be there or don’t bother showing up. Ironically, Mom’s family had a conservative Republican background.

How did that sit with your father?

I think my dad got a kick out of my mom. A lot of this documentary is about their love story. He was much more introverted than my mom, and her love and belief in him did so much to keep him going.

What was your mom’s greatest lesson for you?

I think it was the way she focused her life on matters outside of herself. She would say, “Get out of your own head.” And she lived that. She traveled to Kenya and Angola on human rights missions and stood up to dictators. She would call congressmen and demand they take action on an issue. She thought that community service was a gift. So it wasn’t “You have to do this.” Speaking for people who struggle was something that was just a normal part of her life. She is a great role model.

Were your siblings supportive of this project? What was the hardest part of working on this film?

The hardest part, of course, was the responsibility because I put up personal stuff about my family. But my brothers and sisters were very supportive. Hearing them talk about the role my mom played in Dad’s life, like during the Cuban Missile Crisis, brought me a richer understanding of them both. There is a lot of sadness, of course. We don’t normally talk about these subjects and asking them to relive the pain was hard. But, as always, it was faith that gave Mom the ability to endure it all.

You attended Brown University. Were your studies geared toward socially conscious documentary filmmaking?

My degree was in Women’s Studies and my senior thesis was on women and substance abuse. So I didn’t initially look toward filmmaking. But I grew up in a time when you could see the power of media. For my generation, it was a way to have influence. Cable TV and the Internet were not choices you had 30 years ago.

Do you think documentary films have become better and more relevant?

Absolutely. The good documentaries have adapted film values and have similar dramatic arcs. Michael Moore is a great influence on me. It’s entertainment, but there is a substance that’s missing from, say, reality TV.

Did you learn anything new about your mom while working on “Ethel?”

Yeah, she bet on horses every day while in college. I really don’t know how to explain that.

“Ethel” will screen at the Malibu Film Society Saturday, September 29th. The event is sold out, but a waitlist is available. Go to www.malibufilmsociety.org for further details.

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