Wednesday, October 30, 2019

DOC NYC Shortlist Spotlight: Ask Dr. Ruth

In advance of DOC NYC 2019, which begins November 6th, I’m making my way through some of the contenders on the annual Features Shortlist, which selects the films likeliest to contend for the Oscar for Best Documentary.

Ask Dr. Ruth
Directed by Ryan White
DOC NYC Screenings

Last year, there was an extremely popular documentary about a tiny woman named Ruth who has become something of a national pop culture icon thanks to her groundbreaking work over decades in law. This year, another woman named Ruth gets the same treatment, having her life story assembled into a very entertaining and educational film. Dr. Ruth is referenced by her title rather than her initials, but she has arguably had just as strong an influence on a tremendous number of people and also shows no signs of slowing down even as she enters her tenth decade of life.

Dr. Ruth Westheimer is introduced through clips of her memorable and often controversial appearances on talk shows and in other forums, discussing sex in more detail than most do with absolutely no shame or embarrassment. While she explains the importance of openness and destigmatizing something that most people are too afraid to bring up, she recalls her childhood, being sent from Germany to Switzerland during the Holocaust before emigrating to the United States. She explores her own life decisions and viewpoints, examining the humorous and more serious highlights of an incredible and unlikely career.

This film’s title matches its buoyant stance, presenting the physically diminutive powerhouse as an authority figure who dominates conversations with grown men due to her eager willingness to say whatever is on her mind. Her family members are interviewed to give context about what kind of parent and grandparent she was and is, and one granddaughter tries to comprehend how the trailblazing sex guru, who describes herself as “old-fashioned” and “a square,” doesn’t consider herself a feminist. It’s hard not to smile watching this film, which offers plenty of amusing and enlightening anecdotes about Dr. Ruth and her illustrious life.

Where this film proves most wonderful is in its portrayal of the effect that Dr. Ruth has had on a number of people, many of whom call in to tell her just what she’s done for them, prompting sincere and humble gratitude. Looking at the work she did to advocate for the treatment of those with AIDS and gay men in general is moving, as is her one exception to the avoidance of politics in her strong defense of the need for full access to abortion for women. While some conservative audience may find what Dr. Ruth does and stands for objectionable, it’s hard to deny the impact and impressiveness of what she’s done, as spectacularly and delightfully conveyed in this stirring documentary.


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