Robert F. Kennedy was slain in 1968, five years after his brother John, leaving a widow and eleven children, one of which was born six months after he died. That last child, Rory Kennedy, grew up to be a documentary filmmaker. For the first time, she turns her attention to her own mother in "Ethel," an HBO presentation premiering on the channel on October 18th.
"Ethel" is an emotional, moving, and at times even intense experience, incorporating a wealth of previously unseen photographs and home movies of this iconic American family. This program, however, shouldn’t be considered a historical documentary. This is, first and foremost, a family’s self-portrait, featuring Ethel Kennedy's unique perspective on the highs and lows of her eventful life.
Rory narrates the film, and warns us early on that her mother isn't generally a reflective or introspective person. Ethel doesn't dwell on tragedies, explaining that "nobody gets a free ride" in life.
Though the film is called "Ethel," this is really about Ethel's enduring relationship with Robert Kennedy. Forty-five years after his death, she considers everything she's done since, including raising her eleven children, as simply carrying on her husband's legacy. She dismisses Rory's suggestion that she's done anything extraordinary in raising her children, explaining that the values and ideals with which they were raised were Robert Kennedy's alone.
Of course, the truth in any iconic relationship is much more complicated. Many of Rory's siblings took part in the documentary, sharing their memories and perspective on the nature of their parent's relationship, and their belief that they were who they became because of each other. Ethel, too, was raised in a large, spirited Irish Catholic family - though her father was a self-made man (and a staunch Republican). She was fiercely supportive of her husband, and remains active in the causes he supported.
At the Los Angeles premiere of "Ethel," held at North Hollywood Laemmle Noho 7 as part of the International Documentary Association’s DocuWeeks program, Rory explained that she carefully considered her family's feelings as she produced and edited the documentary. In a particularly telling moment in the film, Rory brings up the evening of Robert Kennedy's assassination with her mother. Ethel at first remains silent and distant, then curtly suggests that they talk about something else. There's little footage from either November 22, 1963, when John Kennedy was killed, or June 5, 1968, when Robert Kennedy was assassinated - a conscious decision, Rory explained, to spare her older siblings from reliving the still traumatic events.
This isn't a film about scandals, indiscretions, or political posturing (though Ethel shares a truth that must have been borderline scandalous in her family: her parents were staunchly conservative Republicans). The film touches on the struggles they've faced - Robert Kennedy after the assassination of his brother, and the family after his own assassination - but this isn't a film about struggle.
This documentary may not be an exhaustive portrait of Ethel Kennedy or her family, but it does reveal a rare perspective: Behind the iconic/legendary status of the Kennedy name, this is just a family - and like most families that survive the test of time, they choose to remember the good times.