Think of the term "political documentary" and what likely comes to mind are Michael Moore diatribes or wonky war room backstage dramas. But documentaries come in all shapes and sizes, and few have done more to showcase all the varying degrees of the art form than Rory Kennedy.
On Aug. 18, her newest project, "Thank You, Mr. President: Helen Thomas at the White House," makes its debut on HBO. The 37-minute short honors the lengthy and groundbreaking career of Thomas, the feisty reporter who was a mainstay in the press room at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. for nine different administrations before she took a leave from her beat earlier this year due to a serious illness."I didn't want to make a film that was merely a tribute, with everyone saying how great she was," Kennedy told Politico last week. "We're so used to hearing Helen ask questions that I wanted it to be about us questioning her, with the film exclusively coming from her voice." Archival footage is used to "buffer" the interview segments and illustrate Thomas's colorful career.
The film's short running time means a quick pace and doesn't allow for meandering shots or any padding. "Quite frankly, documentaries are too long too often," Kennedy said, laughing. "There was enough material here for a 12-part series, but I felt the best way to do it was keep it tight, with a high energy level."
Kennedy, who usually specializes in documentaries that further social advocacy causes, made her first film ("Women of Substance") right after graduating college, hoping to illustrate for policymakers the plight of women suffering from substance abuse problems. Later, a small film she made in 1999 about AIDS was shown on Capitol Hill, and Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy said he put an additional $25 million into an AIDS treatment budget as a result of seeing the short.
The daughter of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (born six months after her father was assassinated), Rory Kennedy went on from shorts to win plaudits for her debut feature about a struggling but strong Appalachian clan, "American Hollow," in 1999. Since then, she's directed and/or produced more than a dozen different nonfiction projects, including a startling look at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison controversy and a damning examination of security at the Indian Point nuclear energy plant near New York City in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Kennedy's first film company, May Day Media, was formed in the early 1990s. These days, however, she makes her films in partnership with longtime chum Liz Garbus ("The Farm: Angola USA"), having merged her Moxie Films banner with Garbus' Firecracker Films ten years ago to form a new documentary production house known as Moxie Firecracker. (She said the unlikely moniker came about when they needed to sign a deal quickly with the Lifetime cable channel and Garbus just threw the company's names together.)
So far, the women have seen their films broadcast on numerous television networks, including PBS, Court TV, MTV, A&E, Oxygen and the Sundance Channel, among others, but their relationship with Home Box Office seems to have yielded the most fruitful results. Several of Moxie Firecracker's films have picked up various festival awards and accolades, with "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib" winning last year's primetime Emmy for best documentary and the feature "Street Fight" earning a 2006 Oscar nomination.
Kennedy said she is kicking around several different ideas for future projects, but probably won't settle down to decide on her next film until next month. "I have three kids who are five and under, including a 1-year-old," she says, "so I'm spending the summer with them and then I'll start something up, probably with HBO, this fall." Meanwhile, Garbus is wrapping up work on a film about freedom of the press, a subject that has a special meaning to her since her father, Martin Garbus, is one of the pre-eminent First Amendment attorneys in the country.
Kennedy's documentary heroes are, predictably, the famous liberal lions, including Moore ("I'm a big fan," she said), D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, Alex Gibney, Jon Alpert and Errol Morris. Also high on her list is pioneering female docmaker Barbara Kopple, whose 1976 Oscar-winner "Harlan County USA" was likely a strong influence on "American Hollow." "She was a trailblazer," said Kennedy, "but she also continues to make important films."
Recently, said Kennedy, she's spent more time than ever on YouTube, and she is fascinated by the work of political activist Robert Greenwald, who frequently posts on the Google-owned site. Kennedy watched viral videos almost every day last year, she admits, finding it a great, unstructured way to receive information.
Staying home and watching her computer is more appealing to Kennedy these days, given her mommy duties and other constraints on her time. She's scaled down her production output, focusing on making just one movie a year instead of four or more, and prefers to work after 8 p.m., after her kids are in bed.
While Kennedy doesn't get out of her Brooklyn, N.Y., home most nights, she said, she did attend a big premiere in Washington at the National Press Club last month for her Helen Thomas documentary. Thomas herself will likely be getting out of her sickbed shortly, Kennedy said, following a prolonged illness that sidelined the venerable reporter for months.
"It looks like she'll be coming home from the hospital very soon," says Kennedy. "She was in a tough predicament for a while, but she's doing better than anyone expected. Helen likes to defy presidents, and it turns out she likes to defy doctors as well."
© 2008 Capitol News Company, LLC