Her Socialist Smile (John Gianvito, US)

By Jordan Cronk

In a year when even the most perfunctorily political film has been deemed newly relevant, it’s a 58-minute observational documentary from 2007 that, by quietly surveying the United States’ progressive past, points most perceptively to the struggle that has faced the American Left since long before 2020. A history of violence and oppression told entirely through the sites and historical markers that stand in tribute to America’s fallen and forgotten revolutionaries, John Gianvito’s Profit motive and the whispering wind reiterates a hard truth about our world: that socially inclined thought is rarely embraced, and that the minds and voices of those fighting for real change are often only appreciated by an engaged few in the rear-view mirror. To the latter point, Profit motive—like each of Gianvito’s films since coming to prominence with The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (2001), including the omnibus project Far from Afghanistan (2012), to which he contributed one of five segments, and the epic diptych For Example, the Philippines, a nine-hour documentary comprising the features Vapor Trail (Clark) (2010) and Wake (Subic) (2015)—is instructive in the way it implicitly frames the viewer and those who preach a liberal ideology as crucial to the conception and collective memory associated with these often tragic figures and events. As Gianvito, whose cinema has dealt almost exclusively with these sorts of invisible histories, phrased it in a recent introduction to Mad Songs’ newly available restoration: “the considerable, unfinished, still aspirational ideals of those who struggled before us advance or recede on our watch.”

A spiritual sequel of sorts to the Howard Zinn-inspired Profit motive, Gianvito’s revelatory new feature Her Socialist Smile takes up the all-but-forgotten political legacy of Helen Keller, whose inspirational childhood education and reputation as the first deaf-blind person to earn a bachelor’s degree has largely overshadowed her subsequent career as a public speaker and activist for a wide variety of progressive causes. In 1909, at age 29, following years of outspoken advocacy for people with disabilities, Keller joined the Socialist Party in Massachusetts, writing and lecturing in support of workers’ rights, women’s suffrage, and racial equality, among other issues. Inspired by Henry George, H.G. Wells, W.E.B. Du Bois, and other of the era’s authors and philosophers, Keller joined the Industrial Workers of the World in 1912 before publishing her own book of essays on socialism, Out of the Dark, the following year—activities that led to her marginalization in the media and, eventually, to demonstrations in opposition to her beliefs, including an infamous 1933 rally in Berlin in which 40,000 Nazi supporters burned dozens of books deemed “degenerate” by the authorities, among them Keller’s. What’s particularly galling given Keller’s fall from popular acceptance is that no footage or audio recordings of her lectures or public speeches survive; other than written transcriptions and the odd news article, this amounts to a roughly 15-year period of Keller’s life being all but stricken from the record. (After 1924, Keller was forced to curb her political advocacy in order to continue to raise money on behalf of the disabled.)

These unfortunate gaps in the historical record presented Gianvito with the unique challenge of representing something for which no audio-visual evidence exists, something he admits he long thought couldn’t properly be achieved through cinema. It’s a predicament that’s been taken up through a variety of approaches by numerous filmmakers over the decades, including Claude Lanzmann (Shoah, 1985), Hara Kazuo (The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, 1987), Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act of Killing, 2012), Rithy Panh (The Missing Picture, 2013), and Wang Bing (Dead Souls, 2018). For Gianvito, it afforded him aesthetic possibilities unique to conveying the nuances of his subject’s physiology. In lieu of wholly forgoing an image or sound track (in a manner after, say, Derek Jarman’s Blue [1993]), Gianvito instead chooses to mainly isolate or juxtapose individual filmic elements in a manner that dovetails with Keller’s distinct way of registering information—not as a one-to-one correlation with her disabilities, but as an organizational conceit that highlights the human capacity for sensory perception, and thus engaging, as Keller phrased it, “the eyes of the mind.” In formal terms, this means separating text from image, voice from text, and, in some cases, image from context. The result is a kind of post-structuralist object that nonetheless imparts a vast amount of historical and biographical information.

Like Profit motive, Her Socialist Smile is a film designed to be literally read. But whereas Profit motive’s narrative was largely transmitted via the wording on plaques, monuments, and tombstones—which, being exposed to the elements, were occasionally difficult to discern—the text in Her Socialist Smile, nearly all of it taken from Keller’s public talks, is handsomely transcribed in lengthy sequences featuring only white lettering against a black screen. Trading the Straubian rhythms and spatiotemporal fusions of the earlier film for the stark poeticism of a David Gatten or René Frölke, Gianvito here places a primacy on language and clarity of thought to a degree previously unseen in his work. Arranged in chapters, the film tells Keller’s story in four distinct ways: through voiceover, archival materials, block text, and newly shot landscape footage. Read by poet Carolyn Forché, the narration was recorded in a studio in scenes filmed in black and white; with her beguiling cadence, Forché contextualizes Keller’s emergence as a political figure and the extent of the authorities’ inquiry into her activities. As an outspoken critic of President Woodrow Wilson, Keller was a prime target for government surveillance, which she dealt with for much of her adult life. Images of court documents and confidential government correspondence not only reveal the depth of the era’s paranoia, but also lend credence to the truly radical nature of Keller’s message.

Aside from its historical import, Her Socialist Smile is a work of exceptional aesthetic beauty, all vivid landscapes, elegant typographies, and lovingly filmed objects and interiors. Of all the films Gianvito has made post-Profit motive (which was his last work shot on 16mm), it’s easily the most strikingly photographed. By filming books (by Keller, Wells, Mikhail Bakunin, and others), archival photographs, and newspaper clippings with the same attention to framing and composition as his outdoor locations—which are split between the director’s own yard and immediate surroundings and, less than ten miles away in Wrentham, Massachusetts, the home that Keller occupied during portions of the same period covered in the film—Gianvito allows each image to radiate a warmth and formal elegance that his prior films have worn more loosely, even while they’ve maintained a certain structural logic and rigour. On a number of occasions, Gianvito briefly breaks from the chronology of Keller’s story to highlight some memorable responses she gave to interviewers over the years. “What is the greatest illusion?” one asks late in the film. Against the backdrop of an empty theatre, her answer is spelled out onscreen: “That we have none.” Like Keller, Gianvito harbours no illusions when it comes to history’s often-fraught relationship with present-day realities. In a recent interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum, the director explained that “[history] interests me primarily, as it did Howard [Zinn], to the degree to which it’s useful to one’s present circumstances, its targeted capacity to both provoke and help energize the long struggle for a more just and egalitarian society.” With Her Socialist Smile, he’s found a subject whose life, as incompletely drawn as it is in the public imagination, not only offers contemporary resonance, but also a way forward.