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Lights, Camera...Kennedy?

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She never met her father, but Rory Kennedy runs into him in unexpected places. Filming her documentary American Hollow in 1998, she discovered Robert F Kennedy’s picture on the wall of an Appalachian shack. A year later, in the middle of South Africa, she found the same photo in a thatched hut. Says Kennedy; “His influence is so far-reaching and profound.”

As a documentarian, Kennedy is having a similar impact. The youngest of Bobby and Ethel’s 11 children, the 34-year-old has made a splash with stirring films about poverty, drug addiction and domestic violence. Her latest, Pandemic Facing AIDS, looks at people living with the disease in Thailand, Uganda, Russia, Brazil and India. “She’s proved herself way beyond her pedigree and connections,” says Sheila Nevins, an executive vice president at HBO, which will air the five-part Pandemic beginning June 15. “Rory gets the trust of her subjects.”

With Pandemic, Kennedy hopes to help change global policy toward AIDS, which has claimed more than 20 million lives (another 42 million are estimated to be HIV positive). “AIDS spreads through silence, and my hope is that this film will open up that dialogue a bit,” she says. Making Pandemic, “I’ve seen so many people die at a very young age.”

Of course, Kennedy has experienced tragedy within her own family. Her father was assassinated in June 1968, six months before her birth. In 1984 brother David died of a drug overdose; her brother Michael was killed in a 1997 skiing accident. Most recently, her cousin John F. Kennedy Jr. died in 1999, along with his wife, Carolyn, and her sister Lauren Bessette, after his plane crashed in the ocean en route to Rory’s wedding in Hyannisport, Mass. “Losing John, who was such a great friend to me and a wonderful, vibrant influence on so many people’s lives, was just a great loss,” says Kennedy. “To me, the fact that it happened on my wedding day is not relevant. The loss of John is the sadness.” She and screenwriter Mark Bailey wed 16 days later in Greece.

Kennedy credits her clan with helping her through those moments: “It’s a real support network.” One that works both ways. Says her sister Kerry Kennedy Cuomo: “She’s incredibly mature, somebody who many of my siblings have turned to in times of trouble.”

Family life also enabled Kennedy to learn about social causes at a young age, when world figures like the Dalai Lama visited her parents’ famous Hickory Hill estate in Virginia. “There was always an energy around those people,” says Kennedy, who was arrested at 15 while protesting apartheid in front of the South African Embassy in Washington.

As a women’s studies major at Brown University, Kennedy became interested in the growing number of pregnant women who had been thrown in jail for drug addiction instead of getting treatment. Moved by their plight, she realized that the women themselves “could really persuade people” and that “the way to do that was to make a film.”

That evolved into Women of Substance, which aired on PBS in 1994. American Hollow, her look at a poor family in rural Appalachia, was nominated for an Emmy in 2000. “She’s able to take global problems or political issues and boil them down to human emotions,” says Liz Garbus, her partner in their Moxie Firecracker production company.

Rory has no plans to follow the Kennedy tradition of running for public office—her documentary work, says husband Bailey, “is Rory’s way of leading a very political life”—and will break from the family in another way: Her brood will be much smaller than Ethel’s. “I’m not sure I’m prepared to have 11 of them,” says Kennedy, who shares a three-bedroom New York City apartment with Bailey, 34, and their 8-month-old daughter Georgia. “I have a whole new respect for my mother.”

Jason Lynch

Mark Dagostino in New York City