The documentary Ethel, an intimate portrait of Ethel’s life directed by daughter Rory Kennedy.
PARK CITY, Utah — Ethel Kennedy prefers coming to the Sundance Film Festival when she’s not the star of a movie.
Rory Kennedy, left, and Ethel Kennedy, from the film "Ethel" pose for Sundance photos
She has been to Sundance in the past to see films by her daughter, documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy. This time, the widow of U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy is the focus of her daughter’s film, the Sundance premiere “Ethel.”
Ethel Kennedy said she likes it better coming to Sundance “just to see Rory’s films.”
“She’s excited, but she’s a little bit shy,” says Kennedy, the youngest of the 11 children of Ethel and the late Robert F. Kennedy. “It’s always awkward to see yourself on the big screen. (Ethel) is mostly proud of me for making the film. It’s very sweet. She deflects it off herself.”
The documentary features interviews with Ethel and seven other family members, which provides “a very personal take on a family that has been on the forefront of a number of historical events, which we explore from the inside out,” Rory Kennedy says.
Though initially reluctant when her daughter proposed the documentary, Ethel Kennedy opens up on screen with candid recollections about the family, including falling in love at first sight with her future husband on a ski trip to Canada.
“He was standing in front of an open fireplace,” she said in an interview alongside her daughter. “I walked in the door and turned and saw him, and I thought, ‘whoa.’”
In the film, Ethel Kennedy discusses campaigning for her husband and his brother, President John F. Kennedy, the similarities and differences between her family and the Kennedy clan, and raising 11 children after her husband’s assassination in 1968.
At the time, she was pregnant with Rory Kennedy, her youngest child, who was born six months after her father’s death.
As a widow with such a big family, Ethel Kennedy said she coped simply by going about what she needed to do in tending her children.
“After Rory was born, it was — life just happened to take care of daily living, which almost had practically nothing to do with me,” she said. “I just started taking carpools in the morning, and by the time I was finished dropping the last child off, I’d pick up the first one. And then, you know, I’m putting on all the galoshes. Well, you get the idea.”
In “Ethel,” airing later this year on HBO, Rory Kennedy coaxes sweet, sad and funny anecdotes out of her mother and her siblings. The Kennedys recollect their mother’s devotion to steeping the children in world affairs, her mischievous sense of humor and her rebellious streak that led to run-ins with the law, such as the time she was charged with rustling horses after freeing some mistreated animals.
Through photos and home movies, the film offers an intimate look at the life of the Kennedys, the family relating how Robert Kennedy and his children slid down a banister in the White House after his brother was elected and how the president once cautioned his fun-loving sister-in-law not to push his Cabinet members into the swimming pool anymore.
In front of her daughter’s camera, Ethel Kennedy is unable to discuss the grief over her husband’s death.
“When we lost Daddy …” she begins, then tears up and tells her daughter, “Talk about something else.”
Rory Kennedy, whose past Sundance documentaries include the Emmy-winning “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib,” said “Ethel” probably was her most challenging film because it was so personal.
“I know my mother and she is just terrific, and I have such admiration and respect for her. She’s such a character, too. I really think she’s one of the great untold stories, not just because of all of the events she’s lived through,” Rory Kennedy said. “But also because she’s just such a wonderful person, and I hope that comes across in the film. She’s so funny, and she is such an inspiration to me. Our family knows my mother, our close friends know her, but to be able to share her with so many other people I think was important.”
ABOUT RORY KENNEDY
Rory Kennedy, the youngest child of Robert and Ethel Skakel Kennedy, kept it all in the family for “Ethel,” her upcoming HBO documentary that was recently shown at the Sundance Film Festival. More than 20 Kennedys and in-laws showed up for the screening of the film, a portrait of RFK’s famously private widow filled with archival footage and home movies. Rory, whose films include Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and Indian Point: Imagining the Unimaginable, was born after her father’s assassination in 1968. She took questions from the audience:
How did you decide to finally do a film about your family, and how did you convince your mother to participate?
I’d considered doing a documentary about my mother before, but I knew that she wasn’t comfortable with it and I wasn’t really comfortable either. But Sheila Nevins [president of documentary and family programming at HBO] kept talking to me about it and finally I said fine, I’ll ask my mother. And she said yes. I think she felt that it was important. She appreciates what she’s lived through and gone through and felt that she had something to add. And I thought if she can do it, I can do it.
What did she feel was important to say now?
She has lived through so many extraordinary historical events and was on the front lines every step of the way. Selfishly, my interest was for my children and my children’s children, and being able to help capture my mother for them, who she is and what she stood for.
There’s a remarkable moment when you ask her about your father’s death. She gets choked up, and it’s the only time in the film when she says, “Talk about something else.”
Part of how my mother has gotten through so much tragedy in life is her inner strength. Religion helped too, but she is not someone who talks about or reflects on difficult moments. So I think that moment in the film speaks volumes about who she is.
What did you discover about your family?
I didn’t know my mother used to bet on the horses in college. And I had never heard the story of my father sliding down the banister at the White House the day Jack and Jackie moved in.
You were born after your father died. Is it a stretch to say you got to know him through this film?
I’d seen a lot of the documentaries about my father, but when I went through the raw footage there was just something else that came through. My mother, too. I think they’re very genuine people, and how they lived their lives was very consistent with their public face.
The early parts of the film have the sweet, happy feel of a family’s home movies. But we, the audience, know the terrible moment of your father’s assassination is coming. Did you feel that sense of dread too?
Yes, it was hard. A lot of the documentaries I’ve done, I’ve had to watch really horrible footage over and over, but eventually you get used to it. I never had that sensation of getting used to it in making this film. It always felt raw and upsetting to me.