Earlier this month, Rory Kennedy – renowned documentary filmmaker and co-founder/president of Moxie Firecracker Films, Inc. — delivered the first Centennial Center for Leadership lecture, titled An Evening with Rory Kennedy. During her lecture, Kennedy discussed leading social change through the lens of a camera.
An article about the event appeared in the Finger Lakes Times.
“In terms of advice for college students, Kennedy said it’s important for people to follow their hearts and their passions and to give back;” says the article,”and when it comes to dealing with her subjects’ hesitation to be filmed, she said some things, like the Abu Ghraib story, can take a lot of meetings, dinners, convincing and showing of her films before they agree.”
The students had the opportunity to speak with Kennedy and ask questions following her talk. According to the article, one student asked “if she ever gets depressed about where her work takes her and how she handles it. Kennedy said it helps that she sees a hero in her subjects, which she finds humbling, enlightening and rewarding.”
Kennedy is one of the nation’s most prolific independent documentary filmmakers. Her impressive body of work tackles some of our most pressing social concerns-poverty, domestic abuse, drug addiction, human rights, AIDS and mental illness — and has garnered numerous awards and been featured on HBO, A&E, MTV, Lifetime, The Oxygen Network, Court TV, TLC and PBS. In her films, Kennedy illuminates issues via the stories of everyday people.
The full article appears below.
Finger Lakes Times
Documentarian Uses Films to Achieve Social Change
Amanda Folts • November 13, 2008
KENNEDY’S WORKS INSPIRE
“It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us, it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” – poet Marion Williams
GENEVA – Rory Kennedy can see change through a camera lens. The award-winning documentarian and youngest child of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy used film clips and storytelling last night to guide an audience of a couple hundred along the career path she chose to bring about social change. Over the last 20 years, Kennedy’s work has looked at poverty, drug addiction, AIDS and other subjects that she said prompted her brother Chris to divide her work into two categories: depressing and more depressing.
Her talk in Albright Auditorium at Hobart and William Smith Colleges was part of the Professionals in Residence Series.
Kennedy’s work in film started with her final paper at Brown University, when she was trying to decide what avenue of social activisim suited her best. She had no training in film when she decided she’d record the story of the southern California woman she was interviewing about the trouble mothers and pregnant women have getting help for substance abuse.
Because mainstream media was only portraying such women as “crack moms” with “crack babies,” she personalized the issue, revealing that the system was working against them. The woman she focused on had been three months pregnant when she asked her doctor for help getting off drugs; he said he’d help, left the room and called authorities. She was jailed for drug abuse, neglect and serving drugs to a minor through the umbilical cord.
One point that Kennedy stressed throughout her hour-long talk was the leadership she witnessed in the people she met, such as a Pennsylvania senator who helped the addicted moms, and the Thai father of a girl who was married off to a virtual stranger after being raped as a pre-teen. She later gave birth to son, was abandoned by her husband and eventually turned to prostitution to support herself. When she returned home, she was dying of AIDS and hoping to stay with her parents for a couple of weeks. Despite being deeply saddened, they were unable to deal with the stigma they’d face if she stayed, so they sent her away. But a couple of weeks later, they found the courage to go get her. She spent her remaining time with them, dying in their arms 21⁄2 months later.
Kennedy, whose company is called Moxie Firecracker Films, explained that often the documentaries are just one piece of the project. She also creates supplementary educational material, has sent copies of her films to students across the country; created a Web site with opportunities for people to get involved; and has taken her films to Capitol Hill to fight for legislation and funding for such things as AIDS research.
“I think it really speaks to the power of this medium to effect real change,” she said. Usually, Kennedy pitches her film ideas to places like HBO, but a request from people at the premium channel resulted in her most recentwork: “Thank You Mr. President: Helen Thomas at the White House.” As a longtime fan of the relentless grand dame of the White House press corps, who has covered that beat since Kennedy’s uncle, John F. Kennedy, was in office, she said she loved the idea of focusing on “this petite woman terrifying presidents.”
The film opens at a press briefing where Thomas and President George W. Bush’s mutual frustration is clear as she hammers him for the truth about why he “wanted” to go to war with Iraq. The final film Kennedy spoke about, “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib,” delves into the American torture of prisoners in the detention center outside Baghdad. Having started the project wondering how anyone could inflict such pain on another human, Kennedy said she concluded with the realization that “We’re all much more capable of this kind of abuse than any of us would like to admit.”
Her disdain for the actions of what the government called “nine bad apples” left her surprised by how likable the soldiers were and how easily she could relate to them. When asked, each explained why they did, saying “because I was told to.” Kennedy noted that it was only the most extraordinary and exceptional soldiers who could refuse. Noting that it’s important to understand how Abu Ghraib damaged the world’s perception of America, she said that it will be “very interesting” in the next several weeks to see ifBush pardons all of the highranking people who were responsible.
Audience questions led Kennedy to explain that she gets her ideas in various ways – “obviously, I read the paper” – and often one social issue leads to another.
In terms of advice for college students, Kennedy said it’s important for people to follow their hearts and their passions and to give back; and when it comes to dealing with her subjects’ hesitation to be filmed, she said some things, like the Abu Ghraib story, can take a lot of meetings, dinners, convincing and showing of her films before they agree.
Referring to Chris Kennedy’s observation about his sister’s work, a Hobart student asked if she ever gets depressed about where her work takes her and how she handles it. Kennedy said it helps that she sees a hero in her subjects, which she finds humbling, enlightening and rewarding.