Best known for making documentaries about important social issues, like “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib” in 2007 and “Last Days in Vietnam” in 2014, director Rory Kennedy has moved in a new direction with her latest film, “Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton.” The documentary, released Sept. 29, examines the life of big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton and his impact on the sport of surfing, and interweaves footage Kennedy captured with footage from Hamilton’s early career.
Kennedy was born in the District, and is the daughter of Senator Robert Kennedy. She began making films in the 1990s, and has been involved in activism throughout her career. In an interview with The Hoya, Kennedy discussed her experience making the film, her filmmaking process and her perspective as a female director.
To start us off, what got you into documentary filmmaking to begin with?
Well, I was in college and I did my final paper about women and substance abuse, and the difficulties they had trying to get drug and alcohol treatment, and decided that I should turn it into a film because I felt the stories were so compelling and that people should understand what the women were going through. So I made my first film, called “Women of Substance,” and I’ve been making documentaries ever since.
In the past, you have directed documentaries about Abu Ghraib and the Vietnam War. How do you select your subjects, and what drew you to Laird Hamilton’s story in particular?
I have to really have a pretty deep interest in a subject, because it does take at least a year of my life, to commit myself to actually making a film, so it needs to speak to me in some profound and meaningful way. Usually I have to feel like there’s a really powerful story there. I mean, that’s what I always search for in a film. I’ve done mostly social issue documentaries to date, and I think that on top of having a great story, they can help people understand our world a little better and hopefully some of these social issues in a deeper way and hopefully in a way that translates to helping and improving policies and making the world a little bit of a better place. That might be a little too aspirational, but may as well try, aim for the stars.
This film was definitely a departure, but I’ve always loved the ocean and nature and appreciated extraordinarily athleticism. And, on top of Laird’s personal story which I think is very compelling, he’s an extraordinary innovator and has really changed the sport more than any other person in the last 50 years and arguably beyond that. I felt that there were a lot of elements to the story that would make a great film.
The film includes both your own footage and footage taken by [Hamilton’s] own team years ago. What was the experience like of trying to integrate those two things?
It’s a challenge, always, to integrate different elements, but a lot of the footage they had was really beautiful, and we worked with that footage to kind of line it up with the footage we were shooting. I think that the storylines kind of complemented each other in a nice way, and both climax at the end of the film and sort of come together, where he’s now in the present day and in the historical timeline, and then he’s ultimately going after the biggest wave of the season for the final scene of the film.
Is there anything in particular you want the audience to take away from watching the film?
I think that there’s a really inspirational story within the film, about a boy who grew up in a broken home, in poverty, without a father, and with an abusive stepfather, and followed his passion. I think that there’s value to that whether you love surfing or not. The story can speak to people from a wide range of backgrounds.
Laird’s one of the great individualists, and so understanding his desire to pursue his dream and not allowing the social norms to get in his way is also something that I think there’s a lot of value in. I think this is the story of somebody who kind of pushes themselves to their own limits and beyond.
We spoke a about what drew you to documentary filmmaking and you talking about being interested in social issues. There has been a rise in biopics and historical fiction films. Is something that documentaries brings to telling these stories that cannot be done in fiction?
I think that you’re talking about real people and real situations and people watch this film and say, “Well you couldn’t script that.” I think part of it is that it’s both, there’s a dramatic narrative story in the film but the fact that it’s all real is kind of stunning.
Are you working on anything else right now, or did working on this encourage you to do anything similar in the future?
I’m doing a documentary now about NASA. So it’s: Here we went to the depths of the waves and there we’re going into the heights of the stars and the universe. There’s some parallel themes actually, but it’s a different story for sure.
It would seem remiss not to ask this given the current climate and what’s been happening in the news: Do you think being a female director has affected your career at all, or affected your perspective?
I do, for sure. I think that documentaries are certainly more friendly towards women than Hollywood is. That said, there are still times and moments where you feel the sexist world around all of us, and how it kind of penetrates all of our careers and choices that we’re able to make and the options that are available to us.
I think that the reality is, where you really kind of see sexism at its more extreme is associated with the budget, and so the bigger the budget, the greater the sexism. So you’ll see really mega blockbuster-intended films that have huge budgets — very few women directors. But with documentaries where the budgets aren’t as big, there are a lot more women. I think in terms of subject matter, they’re more invested or more willing to take risks.
“Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton” is currently playing at E Street Cinema.