‘Ethel’: Speaking Truth to Power

“Whether it’s about religion in politics or politics in religion, if you see something you don’t agree with, you have to stand up”
Old footage and photos, such as this image of Robert and Ethel Kennedy campaigning, and recent interviews of family members are interspersed in “Ethel,” Rory Kennedy’s documentary on her mother’s extraordinary life.

   Rory Kennedy has captured a rare intimate view of her family in “Ethel,” a documentary on her mother to be screened at Guild Hall tomorrow night as the conclusion to the SummerDocs series organized by the Hamptons International Film Festival.
    The youngest daughter of Robert F. Kennedy and Ethel Skakel Kennedy, born a few months after her father was assassinated in 1968, Ms. Kennedy’s filmography boasts some 30 previous documentaries, including 13 as director on subjects such as Abu Ghraib, Helen Thomas, AIDS, the Texas-Mexico border, and the Indian Point nuclear plant.
    The life of the young family at Hickory Hill, their estate in Virginia, had been closely followed in those years leading up to Robert F. Kennedy’s death, as heads of state, men and women of arts and letters, and other prominent personalities came and went as frequent party guests. That public scrutiny waned after Kennedy’s death and was further discouraged by his widow, who preferred to keep herself and her family out of the limelight as much as possible given their political lives.
    After growing up in this environment, the prospect of having members of one of the most private public families in America sit down for interviews, including her mother, the most publicity-shy of all, “was daunting, I have to say,” Ms. Kennedy admitted last week.
    “My mother is so great, but she really does not like talking about herself. She also hates cameras and does not like to sit still in one place. So there was nothing about the process that was not going to be a challenge.”
    It was so daunting that she turned down multiple offers from HBO, which commissioned the documentary, before agreeing to finally do it. “They approached me a number of times, and I said forget it, but they were really persistent.” Part of the impetus to agree came from her mother’s willingness to participate, but there were other factors.
    Ms. Kennedy said that her mother, who is 84, has been asked numerous times to write a book about her life, but she was never willing to pursue it. “She tells so many amazing stories. I felt that if she’s not going to tell her own story, it really should be part of the ether. She’s lived through so much and has been on the front lines of so many historical events and she’s this character, witty, outgoing, fierce. She has moxie.”
    Despite sitting down for a few interviews over the years, “she has never told her story in a significant way.” Presented with the opportunity to do just that, Ms. Kennedy realized the time was right.
    It wasn’t just speaking to her mother that posed challenges, but interviewing her siblings as well. “There has been so much joy and happiness in her life and our lives, but lots of sad moments as well,” including the assassination, which her mother refused to speak about to the cameras. She said her mother and the rest of her family do not dwell on those tragedies, “and those great losses were the most difficult to revisit.” In addition to the deaths of their father and uncles, there were also the losses of two siblings, David and Michael Kennedy, as well as her cousin John Kennedy Jr., who died in a plane crash on his way to Ms. Kennedy’s wedding. “It was hard to ask for my mother and siblings to revisit that grief.”
    She remembers her childhood as mostly a happy time. Her mother “always had a sense of fun and adventure, throwing parties, taking us rafting. She taught us all to sail, ski, play tennis, water ski. We had a new poem to memorize for dinner every Sunday night.” Mrs. Kennedy’s travels have taken her to Namibia, Angola, parts of South America, Europe, and South Africa, among other places.
    She had heard a lot of the family’s stories before, but there were a few that surprised her. “My sister Kerry told one of my mother putting a note in the F.B.I. building suggestion box when my father was attorney general that said ‘Get a new director.’ It went directly to [J. Edgar] Hoover’s office and to my father.” The two officials had a notoriously contentious relationship.
    Through the filming, there were other tales she had heard before that gained new depth in the telling. In 1957, as chief counsel to the Senate Rackets Committee, her father began an investigation of Jimmy Hoffa, the president of the Teamsters Union at the time, and the relationship between union leaders and the mafia.
    “I was aware of my father’s involvement with the investigation of Hoffa, but not of the threats to my family and the fear around them.” Her older siblings had clear memories of being taken to school under security protection and being monitored to ensure their safety in an environment where a labor reporter had been blinded with acid thrown in his eyes by an alleged associate of Hoffa’s. “It was interesting to ask these same questions all in separate interviews. There was something more animated about them, seeing them living through these moments again, really feeling them in an interview.”
    She learned more about the personal side of her mother in her youth, her weekly habit in college of betting on horse races, and the “beauty of the relationship between my mother and father, their depth of understanding of each other.”
    The film also captures Mrs. Kennedy’s later years, after that “period of time when my uncle was president and my father was attorney general and there was that nexus of focus and excitement” around her family and their progressive agenda for the country. While the following years were quieter publicly, “my mother was somebody who continued to be involved in social issues and continued their efforts to bring light to the needs of others and their difficulties and how you can help.”
    The woman she knows “speaks truth to power and stands up to dictators. If she sees wrong, she will do whatever she can possibly do to right it at the expense of getting people upset with her. She will make a fuss over injustice of any shape or form just walking down the street. She is still using her prominence to affect change.”
    In an election year where various religious beliefs have been placed front and center and two Catholics of very different political views are vying for the vice presidency, Ms. Kennedy said she was brought up to believe in the power of questioning authority.
    “Whether it’s about religion in politics or politics in religion, if you see something you don’t agree with, you have to stand up,” she said, citing the nuns who went on a bus tour this year to protest cuts proposed in the House of Representatives’ budget to programs that benefit the poor and working families.
    “The church is a large institution that has power and is powerful, but there is still a significant role for the individual that allows it to stay on track. Part of the theme of this film is that we can all make a difference.”