Q&A: At the Hamptons Film Festival, Ethel Kennedy as Viewed Through the Lens of Her Daughter
Labor Day in the Hamptons marks the end of the summer season – the last of the parties, long days spent on the wide beaches, and arts events that only this high-powered collection of whaling-villages-turned-cultural-meccas can command.
The Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF), celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, has long provided a post-summer artistic shot in the arm to the area. Each Columbus Day weekend (this year, Oct. 4–8), roughly 100 films from 20 countries attract film lovers and industry veterans alike.
The festival’s year-round presence includes the “SummerDocs” program, a series of five documentaries screened at East Hampton’s historic Guild Hall, each followed by a Q&A with the filmmaker and HIFF board member Alec Baldwin.
SummerDocs closed on Aug. 31 with “Ethel,” an intimate look at Ethel Kennedy and her times, by Emmy Award-winning documentarian Rory Kennedy, the youngest of the 11 children of Ethel and Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy. (The film will air on HBO this October.)
The film tells Ethel’s story largely by following her husband’s life, including his curious stint as counsel to Senator Joe McCarthy’s Subcommittee on Investigations, his crusading turn as chief counsel to the Senate Labor Rackets Committee, and then the heady days of “Camelot,” when RFK served as Attorney General and closest adviser in his brother’s administration. Bobby became U.S. Senator from New York in 1964 and then, in 1968, dismayed by the prolonged war in Vietnam, a presidential candidate, until his own death from an assassin’s bullet, on June 6, 1968. But, of course, Ethel’s life continued (and continues), as a single parent and the bearer of the torch.
Bittersweet – as any retelling of the Kennedy family’s storied history must be – the film played to an enraptured, sold-out house in the Hamptons, which included Ethel Kennedy herself, Jean Kennedy Smith (the sole surviving member of the Jack/Bobby/Teddy generation) and a number of Rory Kennedy’s extended family. Through archival footage (including family films never before seen by the public) and interviews with many of her siblings and her subject (who has not agreed to an interview in over 20 years), Rory Kennedy beautifully weaves together the small details of a family’s life with the larger events of a tumultuous time in our collective history.
I had the opportunity to chat with Rory before the Aug. 31 screening. After allowing that she had begun her career in the 90’s as an intern in the WNET offices [WNET is the parent company of MetroFocus] with documentary filmmakers Bill Miles and Nina Rosenblum, Rory spoke about the making of “Ethel.”
BF: Can you talk about the difference between making a film like Ethel, and the other films that you’ve made? You’ve said that you’re really interested in documenting the world outside your own experience, but this film, obviously, has a lot to do with your own experience.
RK: It was more difficult, on a personal level — exploring my own family and the responsibility that comes with that. It was a bit daunting for me and, emotionally, kind of challenging. In terms of putting the film together, that was exciting for me, because I was looking at all of this footage, some of which I had never seen before – some in the public domain and some from our private collection.
Doing the interviews with my mother and my siblings was really an enlightening experience but it was also difficult. I think our family has had a lot of joy, but there have also been some very difficult times that we’ve lived through and that my mother has lived through, particularly. She is a person who very much lives in the moment, forward thinking. I know it was uncomfortable for her, and for most of my siblings, to reflect back on the more difficult times. It’s hard to ask people you love to go through that.
But, I think, in the grand scene of things, it was an experience that I really treasure. I think I gained a lot from it.
It wasn’t a project that I initiated; HBO asked me to do it. I was very resistant. And I figured my mother would say “no” when I asked her. And then she said “yes,” so I figured if she could do it, I could do it.
BF: There’s a quote in the film, from your sister Kathleen, who talks about the fact that your mother lifted your father up; that he had a lot in him, but it was hard to get that out and that you had to have that faith that your mother had in him. That’s a theme that emerges in many of the biographies that have been written about your father. So your film really makes what we’ve read as biography so much more real and personal.
RK: For all of my siblings who I asked about the relationship between my mother and my father, you could see that spark in them.
It wasn’t going to be a huge theme in the film, as to how profound their relationship was, but as I did these interviews and talked to folks, including my mother, you could just see how they were such a partnership in this life that they had together. It became a really central theme of the film.
BF: There’s another quote from your father. He says that, having been a campaign manager, he knew that 90 percent of the talk is done by men, and 90 percent of the work is done by women. And it got me thinking about all the biographies, all written by men (Doris Kearns Goodwin stands out as one of the exceptions) about men. Do you think that, as a woman filmmaker, sharing history with your mother in this film, it’s a different way to tell history?
RK: I think that in all facets of life, women can make a significant contribution and we’re seeing a societal shift over the last 50 years that’s pretty significant. I was just at an event with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand who was talking about the fact that there are now 17 senators who are women, and that she has had the most luck in reaching across the aisle and working with people from the other party who are women because there’s a common mind that connects them and pushes them toward their mutual agenda.
I love Doris Kearns Goodwin because I think that she does such great balance between what was going on historically and then weaving in some of the more personal, anecdotal stories, within that, that kind of make you understand the person and the motivation.
When I was making this film, I thought of her and her writing and her ability to weave those two things together. And what I was trying to achieve with this film was both trying to deal with these significant historical events and trying to tell the more personal story of my family history. Not that women’s perspective is always about the more personal, but I think that emotional sphere is also relevant and is important in understanding history and events…how things happen and why they happen and what drives them and why that person is in that position. I think those perspectives are enormously important.
BF: You premiered the film at Sundance [in January]. What has the reaction been like thus far?
RK: It’s been great. It’s so nice that people continue to be interested. My mother and my family and so many people come out. The response has been really positive overall. It has been a great experience for me and, honestly, for other members of my family. My mother was shy in her response to this and felt self conscious about it. I think that she also felt the audience response and it’s been a very affirming experience for her overall.
Bob Feinberg is general counsel of WNET and co-founder/chairman of the Montclair Film Festival. His interview with Rory Kennedy has been edited and condensed.