The name Dr Ruth is synonymous with sex, or more specifically sexual education, and although her various programs never made it to Australia, her work nevertheless transpired here through popular culture. Ruth Westheimer’s celebrity status peaked in the mid 1980s with the success of her syndicated television program, which itself influenced countless talk shows to follow, and she blazed trails for generations of people.
Her story is told in Ask Dr. Ruth, a documentary that culminates on her 90th birthday, and recalls her most extraordinary life. Born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1928, she was sent away to Switzerland at the age of 10 – at the beginning of the Second World War – where she spent several years in an orphanage. She never saw her parents again and at the end of the war she travelled to Jerusalem, where she served as a sniper during the Palestine War. With this being only the first few chapters in her remarkable story, I will leave the rest for you to discover, as her 90-year journey in life has to be seen to be believed.
Ask Dr. Ruth is a simple film, told with a basic structure, but with full access to her day-to-day commitments and engagements, director Ryan White (The Keepers) is able to share a side of her that few have seen before. As if her mental stamina and physical fitness weren’t impressive enough at the age of 90, we are given a personal insight of the marker-points that helped define her life.
Her childhood story is explained first hand – as read by Ruth directly from diaries she wrote as a kid – and with portions of her youth told through animation designed from a photograph of her, we experience her personal traumas and come to learn how engagement with education and important social issues served as a mechanism to overcome tragedy while simultaneously helping others.
I have already used words like extraordinary and remarkable to describe Dr. Ruth Westheimer, and I feel compelled to use more. Her influence throughout the years is all the more significant in retrospect, and despite political and religious resistance to her work, the value of her candidness has been overwhelming. She spoke to millions of people through her radio and television programs, providing a safe space for people with serious issues and concerns. She was on the forefront of the aids epidemic at a time when homophobia resembled those horrors of the Holocaust, when gay people were persecuted and attacked, and she promoted her mantra of respect with the upmost importance.
The documentary features input from her children, grandchildren, childhood friends and her very first boyfriend from when she was 11-years old. Their sentiments provide a sincere and moving tribute to a beloved icon whose story is both heartbreaking and joyous. The film is a celebration of life and of humanity, and her zest for life is infectious.
It would be all too easy to critique the filmmaking itself because it is entirely rudimentary, but there is no value in such criticisms. Ruth is the subject and Ryan White is smart enough to recognise her personality as his biggest asset. He lets the camera roll and she does the rest. I don’t think I’ve ever smiled so much during a documentary and watching this incredible 90-year old committing to loaded schedules and hectic travel arrangements for the sake of helping people is about as inspiring as it gets.
… and as a footnote, it must be said that hearing Dr. Ruth use terms like blue-balls, blue-lips and cock-tease is reason enough to see the film (so funny).
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★★☆
‘Ask Dr. Ruth’ hit US streaming service Hulu on June 1 and will be in limited Australian cinemas around Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane from December 5.