Directors at the Sundance Film Festival often thank family members in the audience. It’s safe to say that Rory Kennedy -- the youngest child of Robert and Ethel Skakel Kennedy, born after her father’s assassination in 1968 -- had the longest list. For the premiere screening of “Ethel,” her new documentary, more than 20 Kennedys and in-laws showed up, including the subject.
An affectionate portrait of the famously private widow, “Ethel” juxtaposes interviews with the matriarch and Rory’s eight siblings with archival footage and family movies.
Among the film’s highlights: Ethel Skakel and Robert Kennedy, both baby-faced, on a ski trip in 1945; Kennedy squaring off against foe Jimmy Hoffa during Senate hearings on labor racketeering as a staunch Ethel looks on; and the Kennedy children recalling the good days -- banister-sliding at the White House -- and the tragic.
“It was like Daddy lost both arms,” says Rory’s sister Kathleen about the six months “of blackness” that followed the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
HBO will present the film this summer. I spoke at Sundance with Rory Kennedy, whose films include “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib” and “Indian Point: Imagining the Unimaginable.”
Evans: How did you decide to finally do a film about your family, and how did you convince your mother to participate?
Kennedy: 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.
Evans: Any idea why she agreed?
Kennedy: 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.
Evans: What did she feel was important to say now?
Kennedy: 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.
Evans: 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.”
Kennedy: 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.
Evans: What did you discover about your family?
Kennedy: 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.
Evans: You were born after your father died. Is it a stretch to say you got to know him through this film?
Kennedy: 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.
Evans: 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?
Kennedy: Yes, it was hard. A lot of the documentaries I’ve done, I’ve had to watch really horrible footage over and over, like in “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib,” 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.
(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)