A harrowing, inspiring “Boy’s Life”

Filmmaker Rory Kennedy talks about the passion for social justice she shares with the father she never knew, and changing the world with her camera, one story at a time.

Topics: HBO,

A harrowing, inspiring "Boy's Life"

Wednesday night HBO airs “A Boy’s Life,” the newest film by documentary maker Rory Kennedy. “A Boy’s Life” unfolds over two years in rural Mississippi, tracing the progress of Robert Oliver in his seventh and eighth years. Grandmother Anna is raising Robert and his younger brother, Benji, since their mother, who got pregnant as a teenager as the result of a rape, feels she cannot provide for her sons. Anna introduces us to Robert at the start of the film and paints the picture of a scary kid — the kind that kills his house pets, has tried to kill himself, fiddles terrifyingly with the gas knob on the stove, and has wild tantrums. He’s medicated to the gills.

But as the film progresses, we see Robert flourish in a new school, and a much creepier narrative takes shape, one that throws the familial premise of the film into question. It’s not easy to watch: In one blood-curdling scene Anna lets hyper Robert play with a gun while the rest of the family hangs out in the front yard. He holds the heavy metal weapon above his head unsteadily, waving it precariously while his grandmother taunts him for being too weak to pull the trigger.

It’s the pull-no-punches fare we’ve come to expect from Kennedy and her production partner Liz Garbus, who together run Moxie Firecracker films and have produced other chronicles of impoverished America, including “American Hollow” (also directed by Kennedy) and “Girlhood” (directed by Garbus).

Kennedy is the youngest daughter of the late Robert Kennedy; she was born six months after his assassination in 1968. While she’s not chronicling some of the gruffer realities of American life, Kennedy, who is six months pregnant, lives in Brooklyn with her screenwriter husband, Mark Bailey (the story editor on “A Boy’s Life”), and their 17-month-old daughter, Georgia. She spoke to Salon on Tuesday by telephone.

How did you find Robert? And when?



I had intended to do a film about welfare reform, looking at how the changes in welfare were going to affect children. There were about 100,000 children who were going to be turned off the rolls. A good portion of those were children with mental illness. I was looking to profile a family that fit that description. I had been told about Robert by his therapist, who said, ‘I’m working with a child who has tried to commit suicide and has killed four dogs and three cats and is on a number of medications.’ I wanted to meet him. Then we went down there and met Robert and it was clear that this was a child in need of assistance. But it was also fairly evident — we only spent three or four days there, but even in that time frame — that there was a lot more going on with the family. I came back from that trip and showed some of the footage to HBO and talked with them about doing a different kind of film that would just focus on this one family.

Are you still in touch with them?

Yeah, I have been in touch with them. They continue to do well. Robert and Benji are still living with their mother. They changed schools again, but they are both on the honor roll and have made a lot of friends. Robanna [their mother] has recently published a book of poetry and she is actually heading to a poetry conference in Denver in couple months. And Anna, believe it or not, is doing great, according to Robanna. According to Robanna, she is much more supportive of the children and of Robanna herself. She ended up going into a mental hospital and now goes to community therapy three or four days a week and is really doing great.

You’ve directed two films about the American South. What is your interest in the area?

It’s a little bit of a coincidence. With “American Hollow” I was interested in the region itself, in Appalachia, which had something to do with my father. He had spent time down there and had been really impacted by his experience, so I’d always been curious about it. The truth is both of these films, “American Hollow” and “Boy’s Life,” have come out of this other film about welfare reform which I have yet to do … so I should just keep making this welfare reform film and then I’ll get 15 other films under my belt.

Would you say your main interest as a filmmaker is in issues of class?

Class is an enormously important issue to me. I think it’s one of the most important issues not only in this country, but in the world. And so it is definitely something that I look toward and think about often — the discrepancies between rich and poor in this country, and that gap growing bigger and bigger. It certainly informs a lot of other issues that are important to me, whether that’s race or mental health issues.

Has your professional ambition been to be a filmmaker or a social advocate? Did you ever consider making blockbusters or romantic comedies?

When I graduated from college I had been doing research on an issue for a final paper about women and substance abuse. I met a number of women in that situation and felt when I talked to them directly that they were so convincing that if they could tell their stories to policymakers it could make a difference. So I made a film called “Women of Substance,” and I really loved the experience. I had never taken a film class and hadn’t intended on continuing to make documentaries, but in the process of making it I really fell in love with the medium. I came to making documentaries more with an interest in social advocacy than a love and passion for film. That’s shifted somewhat, but I continue to choose topics that have some sort of social implications and create an awareness about something people haven’t thought so much about.

Are you tempted to get involved in some of the unfortunate family situations you document? Do you get upset at what you’re filming while you’re filming it?

Of course. I don’t go into these projects with a sense of trying to remain outside of the experience of it. It’s important to remain open to the people you’re filming and what they’re experiencing. I don’t try to close myself off from that, which means that I’m emotionally pulled into the situations.

Being a documentary filmmaker is different from being a journalist, although I try to maintain a journalistic integrity to the films. But [the films] are usually from the perspective of these families or these communities. They don’t pretend to be otherwise. I followed this family for over two years. Of course you get attached.

You and your production partner Liz Garbus are Brown graduates and you come from a publicly powerful and privileged family. Are you conscious of the sharp class differences between you and some of your subjects?

Absolutely. I’m certainly aware of those differences. One thing that is continually remarkable to me is bridging those differences and seeing so many similarities with people from different backgrounds and reaching across those differences and trying to touch the humanity in all of us.

What is the most gratifying part of what you do for a living?

A lot of people think of work as part of their life and life as the other part of their life and I definitely feel that they are one and the same. I learn so much from people I meet and places that I go. I feel lucky to be in new and unique and challenging situations and not have any kind of monotony or sameness in my job life. And with many of these films I use them to have an impact. I did a short film about AIDS in 1999, when the global AIDS crisis hadn’t been on people’s radar screens so much. I was able to show it on Capitol Hill and Senator Leahy came up to me after the screening and said “You know I had the opportunity to see your film about a month ago and I want you to know I put an additional $25 million in the budget as a result of watching that film.” Obviously I don’t experience that kind of reward every day, but that is testimony to the impact of this medium.

You grew up in a family whose every move was documented on camera. Is your work a way of turning that camera on other families in the interest of doing good?

I personally didn’t feel that my personal life was documented to an extraordinary degree. There were moments at certain types of events where there would be photographers or cameras. But I didn’t feel like there was a press corps following me in my childhood. So I didn’t have that experience per se. But the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial had a journalism award, and the journalism award went to journalists who pursued stories that were of interest, or would have been of interest, to my father, so that was certainly something that influenced me. There have also obviously been many documentaries about my father, whom I didn’t know. [They] helped bring his legacy to life and I certainly experienced some connection with him through that medium, which was mostly a very rewarding and positive experience. So that probably had something to do with it, but again I really didn’t set out to make documentaries and to pursue that my whole life.

And what’s the deal with your production company’s name, Moxie Firecracker?

The name and how ridiculous it is? I blame that entirely on my partner. I had a company called Moxie Films and my partner had a company named Firecracker films. I had gone out of the country for the first AIDS film and we had to sign deal with Lifetime and needed name for the company so my partner put Moxie and Firecracker together and it just stuck … because it is just such an extraordinary name.

Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>