Helen Thomas with filmmaker Rory Kennedy.
Rory Kennedy didn’t always know she wanted to be a filmmaker, but she did see herself as a political activist. As the daughter of former U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, politics run strong in her blood. In wanting to make an impact on people’s lives, she gravitated towards film as a means of educating herself and others about political and social issues. Her repertoire of films covers topics from human rights to political corruption. She began with Women of Substance in 1994 and has since grown to an impressive array of award-winning social documentaries, including the Emmy-nominated Pandemic: Facing Aids and her 2007 film Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and won an Emmy for Best Documentary.
Her latest documentary, Thank You Mr. President: Helen Thomas at the White House, tells the story of respected and influential political journalist Helen Thomas. Described as sharp as an axe, Helen Thomas has been a staple at White House press conferences for six decades. She has followed presidents such as Nixon, Bush, and Clinton around the world and worked through scandals and controversies such as Watergate, the impeachment of Bill Clinton, and the Iraq war. The sometimes controversial political reporter is now in her 80s, and is still asking the questions that no one else will ask.
The Independent had the opportunity to speak with filmmaker Rory Kennedy about Thank You Mr. President, premiering on HBO on August 18th with additional airings throughout the month and releases on DVD by HBO video on August 19th.
You have a very impressive repertoire of films. Can you tell me what draws you to make a particular film? Where does your passion for documentaries stem from?
I never went to film school and I didn’t really have a particular passion for film per se when I was growing up. I was always kind of a social activist. I was doing a final paper when I was graduating from college about women and the difficulty they have trying to get drug and alcohol treatment, particularly pregnant women and women with children. At that time, there were a lot of stories about crack babies and those mothers not caring about their children. When I was doing research and talking to women in the situation, I found that a number of them tried to get treatment and weren’t able to because they were pregnant or because they were women. I found that their stories were very compelling and if people could meet these women directly and not just hear what they were hearing in the mainstream media, that [a film] could potentially impact the way people view the issue. It could also create policies that were more compassionate and more effective.
So, I decided to bring in cameras to document their lives and then to try and share that to larger audiences [which became] my first film, Women of Substance. I loved what I learned about them and their world, about myself. And then I loved creating the film in the edit room.
Once it was finished, I loved getting it out to the world and seeing people respond to it and seeing the impact. I just loved every part of the process. So I’ve been doing it ever since and feel very lucky because I continue to learn so much from the work that I do, and I continue to feel like it brings me to places and situations and helps me learn about things that otherwise I would never have had a connection with.
Helen Thomas is clearly a strong woman as well as journalist. Why did you feel it was important to do this film?
Well, I think she has a life worth documenting, for a number of reasons. I think her personal story is very compelling. She came from illiterate parents who were immigrants from Syria. At a very young age she decided she wanted to be a journalist, moved to Washington, not knowing anybody there, and rose up.
It’s a story about seeking truth to power, and she has been rattling presidents since 1960, and holding them to account. I also think, because she has been at the front row of history, she has a perspective that’s worth hearing about and insights into these presidents. She has some really wonderful and interesting stories about her personal relationships with President Kennedy [who was also Rory Kennedy’s uncle] and President Johnson and President Nixon, and helped humanize these Presidents. I think she is able to provide insights into their characters and personalities that we haven’t heard before. So I think that’s important, and then I think as a journalist she has stood up to presidents consistently over the years — and often singularly — so I think it’s also a wonderful story about the role of journalism in democracy and the role of the individual journalist to do their job well and how important that is to a thriving democracy.
In the film you asked Thomas if she thought she took it too far, personally, with President Clinton. In fact, Thomas said, “I don’t understand how he possibly could’ve taken what he took. He was asked so many personal questions that I’ve never — no president has ever been subjected to that kind of tyranny.” Do you think she took it too far?
[In the case of] President Nixon, he complimented her on her new job, the new commission at the head of the White House Press Corps, and then she goes into him and asks about the tape and asked about Watergate. She’ll be asked to the White House for a social event, and she brings her pad and paper with her and asks the President questions. So, she is going to ask the question that needs to be asked no matter how awkward it is or how uncomfortable it is. And I respect that form of journalism and I respect her need to do it.
Do I feel like Bill Clinton was taken to task on something that was overblown and was really the result of right-wing focus on an issue that was less important to the world? Yes, I don’t think that what he did was so relevant to our national politics or welfare, and I think there were other things that were more compelling and important. But I understand why she did it, and I respect that she did and where she was coming from.
She also received some negative feedback for her comments on the Iraq war and the Bush administration. (She asked how many civilians were killed in the Iraq war.) Do you think she took it too far in that case?
Well absolutely not in that case. I mean, in that case I went to the raw footage of what she asked and she asked [White House Press Secretary] Dana Perino and the White House if they knew how many people had been killed, innocent Iraqis had been killed. It’s an absolutely legitimate question, I mean if we’re killing innocent Iraqis in a country that we’re occupying and the people there don’t want us to be there, then we’re an occupying nation and we absolutely have to come to terms with the fact that we are killing people who have nothing to do with this war. And for a journalist to ask that question is a hundred percent legitimate.
Why then do you think she received so much negative feedback?
I think it was taken out of context, and the way that Dana Perino responded to it, as well as Bill O’Reilly, was to suggest that Helen had said that we are targeting innocent Iraqis. And I went to the original archive sources and she did not say that we were targeting Iraqis but was asking if they knew how many Iraqis had died. So, I think part of the response was the idea that if our troops were targeting innocent Iraqis, that would obviously be an upsetting idea. But that was absolutely not what she was asking. And I think that was the White House and the Bill O’Reillys of the world taking it out of context.
She got a lot of hate mail for that and for her questioning whether we should go to war in the first place. There was a lot of controversy just because she was asking those questions in the lead up into the war, and she was asking those questions over and over and over again and people really responded negatively to that. But that is her role and that is what she should be doing. And looking back, it is clear that other journalists didn’t do their job the way they should have. Had they, we may not be in the situation that we are in today, which is in a war that nobody really wants to be in.
In the film, Thomas says you can’t have a democracy if the people aren’t informed. Do you agree with that statement? Are there instances where the people should not be informed?
I think there are a handful of them [in our nation’s history] over the last 200 years. I think that this administration uses that excuse over and over again about why they can’t give information — they continually say that this will hamper our efforts on the war of terrorism if we give you information about how we’re torturing people or information about whose doing what. And I think that it’s a way to hide and not be transparent with what they’re doing because they know what they’re doing is controversial and will alienate and continue to contribute to very high disapproval ratings.
One of the things that Helen says is when the President loses the trust of the people it’s very hard to get that back. And I think one of the reasons the current President’s approval ratings are so low and his disapproval ratings are so high is because he has lost that trust. One of the ways he lost that trust is by not being transparent and continuing to hold back information that is relevant and important for all of us to know to have an informed democracy and for democracy to flourish.
It was interesting how she said that President Bush does not allow follow up questions. I enjoyed watching the footage of Thomas questioning our current President. How many hours of footage did you wind up having, and how did you decide what clips to use?
Well, we ended up doing a five-day interview with Helen in Washington. It was probably over 20 hours of footage. And then there was obviously archival footage and we worked with a really wonderful archival researcher who helped navigate that with us. We went to all the presidential libraries and the major archive sources. It was such interesting material to be able to look through — to see Helen’s continual interactions with the presidents over all these years and over and over again her holding them to account no matter what. It was a really fun project for me.
Do you edit most of the films yourself?
I work with an editor; I don’t actually edit them myself. But as the producer and director, [editing] is obviously a huge part of how the film comes together.
It’s my understanding that this film premieres on HBO, how did you decide that?
I was approached by HBO to do the film. This was the first film where they asked me to develop a documentary on a particular subject. They’ve asked me to participate in a series or other documentaries, but most of the feature documentaries that I have done for them have been ideas that I came to them with.
Have you spoken to Thomas since making this film? I read that she was in the hospital? (Thomas suffered from a colon infection.)
Yes, I am happy to report that she is coming out of the hospital today. She is doing much better. She has seen the film, and I think she really loved it and I am happy that she enjoyed it. We had a premiere [in DC] and I saw her and she still had that great fighting spirit.
What advice do you have for other filmmakers on a small budget trying to get a documentary made?
It’s a tough profession and it’s always hard to make a film. But I think that there are so many stories out there that need to be told and that if you can get over the initial hurdles then often you can make a great film. And there are a lot hurdles between the beginning and end of any project — doors being closed and challenges — it requires a certain amount of energy and creativity to get around those. But I think that we have a lot to learn from Helen Thomas even in making these documentaries, which is that to just keep at it. Think of emerging on the other side with something wonderful.
What is next for you and your production company Moxie Firecracker Films?
My partner Liz Garbus is doing a project for HBO about the First Amendment; I think she is going to be finishing that one in the fall. And then I am hoping to do another project with HBO but I don’t know what it is yet. I’m going to meet with them next month.
You can see Thank You Mr. President: Helen Thomas at the White House on HBO Monday August 18, 2008. It will also be available at Amazon.com on August 19, 2008. It also airs on HBO August 20, 21, 24, 27, and 30.