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Standing in her living room, Samantha tries not to cry, but a single tear falls down her cheek. Her couch cushions are ripped apart, the stuffing thrown around the room. A knife is jammed into the TV set; her bible is torn and scattered. Victim of an abusive husband in rural Appalachia, she had come to survey the damage after moving with her children to her parents’ house.

A hushed audience watched the emotional scene, from documentary maker Rory Kennedy’s 1999 film American Hollow, in Emerson Suites. Kennedy was on campus in January as the first speaker sponsored by the new Park Center for Independent Media, which Dean Dianne Lynch hopes will become a forum for examining the changing media environment.

Kennedy spoke about how documentary filmmaking can be a tool for social change, and she used the clip from American Hollow as an example. “I try to give a voice to people who may not otherwise be heard,” she said during her public talk. Covering such topics as rural poverty, the global AIDS crisis, drug addiction among women, and, most recently, the torture at the U.S.–run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, Kennedy tackles tough subjects and gives her audience a glimpse into the lives of everyday heroes.

One of those is Ken Davis, a soldier featured in Kennedy’s film Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, who reported the abuses to his superior. Kennedy calls his actions “inspiring.” While her films cover difficult, often overwhelming, subjects, she feels “a sense of hopefulness through the people I meet and their ability to overcome enormous obstacles.”

During her final year as a Brown University student, Kennedy was researching her senior thesis on the struggles of female addicts and their families and realized that observing them firsthand was more effective than reading about them. “Once I started working with people,” she told the Ithaca audience, “the statistics began to have meaning.” Her first film, Women of Substance, brought that senior project to life and cultivated her passion for filmmaking.

“My brother tells me I make two kinds of films—depressing and really depressing,” she joked. Then she got serious: “[But the] greatest [reward] is touching people emotionally.”

Laura Swanson ’10, a journalism and culture and communication double major, found Kennedy’s presentation inspirational. “I’m definitely interested in documentary film,” she says, “and think it’s a great way to bring social change.”

Kennedy’s advocacy is linked to her family’s history and legendary commitment to equality and human rights. “A lot of my family have dedicated their lives to social issues and social justice,” says Kennedy, the youngest daughter of Robert F. and Ethel Kennedy. “I certainly think that influenced me and [affected] why I have chosen to pursue social justice myself.” Yet she doesn’t make documentaries out of obligation to the Kennedy legacy, but because she loves her calling. “I feel very passionate about these issues,” she says. “It’s such a gift to be able to work in this field.”

Kennedy’s current project profiles legendary journalist Helen Thomas.

Learn more about Kennedy's film Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, and watch an interview with her from Sundance Channel: