10/16/2012 04:04 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Ethel -- A Piece of Work


Credit: HBO

There is as much about Ethel Kennedy in this film as there isn't -- a well-played hat trick by filmmaker/daughter Rory Kennedy who takes on one of the most private, emotionally guarded women in American history who is not only her mother but whose personal losses -- played out on the world stage -- would render others mute. But when her youngest child, whom she was pregnant with at the time of Robert Kennedy's death and is clearly beloved by the entire family, asks her a question, she'll answer it.

The Ethel Kennedy presented in the HBO Documentary Ethelthat premieres this Thursday, Oct. 18 is one of those big family moms you are half scared of and half drawn to when you're a kid who is now a somewhat bristly grandmother who can still halt an inappropriate question with a flash of her eye. (Think blue state Barbara Bush) Only now she is a bit more willing to answer. A difficult person rendered honest, charming and forthcoming when her youngest child asks her to tell her something.

Rory Kennedy's genius stroke is to only interview her mother and her siblings -- effectively knocking all other perspectives, opposing viewpoints and reality checks off the table while creating an intimate portrait that will once again inculcate the Kennedy family into our collective American slide show. It's a visually sophisticated film with deft stokes of sentimentality.

Once Ethel starts talking she is revealed as a seriously fun young woman whose life was utterly transformed when she married one of the most complicated American politicians and visionaries of modern times, and whose assassination essentially froze her in the country's collective memory. Except she had 11 children to raise, which is essentially what this film is about; the icon is a living breathing mother who kept going, and a family story is told.

Two things stand out to me in this documentary -- one, Ethel Kennedy has a gorgeous voice -- deeply modulated and compelling. And two, Rory Kennedy is as much a protagonist in this film as her mother. Never has an observer been more closely observed. Her brothers and sisters are speaking to her, not us, telling her what she missed or may not remember, what this family is and how their mother continues to be the guiding force and ever-present source of humor in the life of this family. There is a gentleness and affection as they speak to the camera which is, in reality, the daughter and the baby sister. The jokes, the stories, the shorthand, the sarcasm -- this is a living family and not a fractured Camelot.

I interviewed Rory Kennedy in January when the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival:

Nancy Doyle Palmer: I was struck at how articulate your mother is. Most people haven't ever really heard her speak at length, just seen her image.

Rory Kennedy: She is one of the most well-read people I know -- she does the crosswords every day and she's always curious and learning new things and it's how she has gone through her life for the last 50 or 60 years. She is extraordinarily articulate -- she writes beautiful thank you notes and letters. And she's a wonderful writer.

NDP: One of the many challenges in this film is that your mother is not particularly introspective by nature. How much negotiation did you go through with her, not only as her daughter but as the filmmaker, to broach certain topics and how far you'd go?

Rory Kennedy: There was no discussion before doing the interview with her about anything that was I couldn't cover -- there were no restrictions, she didn't say you can't ask me about this, that or the other thing. The film is a discussion I had with her over the course of five days and I think that we covered the gamut of her life, her experiences. Often she wouldn't answer the question in a way that isn't considered 'traditional' like when she says 'why are you asking such a ridiculous question' or 'I don't want to answer that.' That's an insight to her and her personality and her character that comes through in the lack of response as well.

NDP: She can be fiery! You caught some of that but I can understand that not being the goal of how you wanted to present her.

Rory Kennedy: She is fiery, and I was hoping to capture not just events and the insights that she has to these historical events that she lived through but also this really extraordinary character and personality. This is something all of the family has known and come to appreciate but I don't think she's really shared herself with the world or with the country in such a way -- it was important to me to capture her personality

NDP: Was it your decision not to ask your mother about the loss of your brothers?

Rory Kennedy: I felt like it was important to cover her sense of loss... I felt in that section of the film when I ask her about my father and the loss of him and how she handles loss in general but it just felt like a little bit much to keep asking her about loss and loss and loss.

In certain instances my siblings provided a greater insight into a particular event, and that was one of them -- getting their response in that section -- I felt was the way to go.

NDP: : Talk about your decision to make this a personal film, using only your brothers and sisters and your mother on camera. You are a documentary filmmaker but this isn't really an objective look at the subject.

Rory Kennedy: I think it's impossible make an objective film, period. But clearly with this film I wanted to be clear to the audience from the beginning that this was the film that I was making about my mother and it wasn't meant to be a film that was coming from an "objective filmmaker," that she's coming at it with no kind of investment in it. It was important to me to present this to the audience at the beginning. I think there have been a lot of documentaries over the years about my family, and I felt like what I could offer might add to the discussion and to add to the overall sense of things was more of a film from the inside out -- and I chose to only interview my mother and my siblings and get their sense of what it was like as a family both in the background but maybe on the front lines of some of this historical events in our nation.

I think also as a filmmaker I have come to appreciate the need to narrow the focus of a film and maybe it's better the more narrow it is than the broader -- that's sort of what I came up with to approach this particular subject.

NDP: There is a real poignancy in Ethel as you find out things that happened before you were born. Talk about this journey -- of finding out more about your mother and your sibling and the father you never knew. He's such a strong character in this film. Did you get more emotionally involved than you expected to?

Rory Kennedy: There were certainly things I learned about my mother and my family in making this -- it's a kind of a rare privilege to sit down and ask your parents or your siblings every question you have ever wanted to ask them and get those responses and answers.

I did learn about my mother and my family along the way which kind of provided a deeper appreciation and sense of who they were and what they stood for.

There are insights like the fact I had no idea my mother used to bet on the horses in college, and sweet stories about the inauguration when Uncle Jack moved into the White House with John and Caroline, and what that day was like and my father and the entire family going in and my father sliding down the banister and the kids running around the pool and the bowling alley. As this picture was painted of so many children running through the White House and the kind of the happiness of that moment and the hope that was both embodied in my family and the country at that time. These were the kinds of nuggets that were fun to me to learn as well as a deeper appreciation for my family and what they lived through.

NDP: There is a real lightness and love in how you present your mother and your family in this film. And as much as you cover your father's life and the violence and tragedy that has accompanied your family's journey, it doesn't dominate the story. Was it a deliberate choice to present this history but in a joyful way?

Rory Kennedy: I think that I was trying to capture my mother and my family and how we have gone through life and I think that there is a lot of projection from the outside world onto our family about the tragedy -- they always come back to that but it's not internally reflective of how most of us have gone through life.

There is a huge amount of joy and appreciation and gratitude, and a sense of humor and kind of being present in whatever situation we are in that is much more truthful to how I think my mother and most of my family has navigated their lives. It wasn't that I was trying to hide away from that, it's just not actually true to my family's experience in my mind.