The radical documentary filmmaker John Gianvito is perhaps best known for his 2007 film Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind, which is currently streaming on Mubi. This documentary, without dialogue or voice-over, traces the history of Americans murdered or executed in defense of progressive causes. Gianvito, state by state, visits the graves and historical markers that remember them, shooting each from whatever angle is possible, in cemeteries, on the sides of highways, in fields, and in the plains where Native Americans were slaughtered. The film encompasses King Phillip’s War, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Joe Hill, and Malcolm X in its survey of men and women who died seeking justice while trying to improve the lives of their fellow citizens.
Gianvito’s new film, Her Socialist Smile, presents, in an equally original way, the story of Helen Keller’s coming to political consciousness and her subsequent promotion of socialism in her books, in newspapers and magazines, and on the vaudeville and lecture circuits. Keller (1880–1968), who lost her hearing and sight before she was two years old, famously learned to read, write, and speak at the age of seven, an almost unprecedented accomplishment in the nineteenth century. She became world famous with the publication of her autobiography, The Story of My Life, in 1903, written while she was in college, at Radcliffe. She was the first deaf-blind person to graduate from college in the U.S., then joined Eugene V. Debs’s Socialist Party of America in 1909, going on to write eleven other books, including How I Became a Socialist and Out of the Dark, a series of essays on her political beliefs.
Her Socialist Smile is currently showing in festivals. This month it plays in Germany, Canada, Korea, Portugal, and Vermont. It is distributed by Grasshopper Film.
—A. S. Hamrah
A. S. Hamrah: How did you become interested in making a documentary about Helen Keller and her politics?
John Gianvito: About twenty years ago I came upon a reference to this dimension of Keller’s life in some writing by Howard Zinn. I’d had a shallow understanding of who Keller was and her life story until then. I knew about the purported near-miracle of a young blind and deaf Helen acquiring, with the aid of her teacher, Anne Sullivan, the ability to read and write and to speak. As to what she actually went on to read, write, and speak about, I had no idea. I just had, I suppose, some general sense of her having been a kindly goodwill ambassador on behalf of the needs of the blind.
I began digging out some of Keller’s published socialist texts, initially some I found online and then in a collection edited by labor historian Philip Foner. What immediately struck me was how fresh and pertinent to the times the writing still seemed, almost as if it had just been written. Here were critiques on the fundamental savagery of capitalism itself, calling out J. P. Morgan, calling out the relationship between industry and militarism, calling out white supremacy, calling out the impotence of Congress, calling for an emboldened union movement, and for women to have a greater role in the affairs of the world. All of this interwoven in a socialist conviction that “the welfare of each is bound up in the welfare of all.” Given the disparaging of socialism that I’ve heard throughout my life, I was intrigued to discover just how deeply and fervidly Helen Keller had embraced these ideals. Then I had the idea that this might be something I could explore in a film, initially imagining it as something like a half-hour documentary short. As I began to research further, I was stymied by my inability to lay my hands on any archival film, photographic, or audio material specifically tied to Keller’s political and socialist activities. Really odd I thought, given that, at that time, Keller was one of the most celebrated figures in the world.
Given the disparaging of socialism that I’ve heard throughout my life, I was intrigued to discover just how deeply and fervidly Helen Keller had embraced these ideals.
Bit by bit, I began to suspect that a willful effort had been made to “disappear” this history, especially as it cut against the popular image of Keller being promoted initially by the American Foundation for the Blind, an image tailored to aiding their own fundraising efforts. Then, right after I learned that there existed a separate Keller archive, the Helen Keller International in New York City, I discovered it had just been destroyed in the fallout of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. At that point, I said to myself, “It’s an interesting topic, but for a filmmaker, there’s not much possible,” and I moved on. As you see in Her Socialist Smile, I found my way back to it, finally allowing myself to embrace the challenges.
ASH: Keller was once a well-known figure in American culture and in American history, so much so that Arthur Penn’s feature film from 1962, The Miracle Worker, with Patty Duke as Keller and Anne Bancroft as Anne Sullivan, her teacher, won Oscars and was ubiquitous in pop culture for decades. But knowledge of Keller’s life seems to have fallen off in recent years, along with that film. What happened?
JG: With regard to the diminishing awareness of Penn’s work, I’m not sure of the explanation. I first saw it on television as a teenager in New York at a time when we only had about thirteen channels, and yet in any week I could see more films than I can today with hundreds of cable channels. I mean, try to even find a black-and-white film on cable. It’s hard to develop an appetite for things to which you’ve never been exposed. As to waning cognizance of Helen Keller, perhaps it’s a consequence of the evolution of a disability politics that no longer requires, or necessarily benefits from, such a “saintly” figurehead.
ASH: Even those who are aware of the outlines of Keller’s biography may not know she was considered a radical for much of her life. How did she come to political consciousness? And how did that facet of her biography come to be suppressed?
JG: According to Keller, the evolution of her political consciousness came about via her study of the problems of the blind. In looking into the diseases and accidents which frequently caused loss of sight, Keller came to see connections between poverty and illness which, she said, brought her “closer in touch with the problem of working classes.” During this period, as mentioned in my film, Anne Sullivan recommended to Keller a popular book of the time, H. G. Wells’s New Worlds for Old, a book which Keller attributes to awakening her interest in socialism. Wells had long been an impassioned socialist, a subject on which he’d published numerous pamphlets and essays. In New Worlds for Old, he attempts to provide a historical overview of socialist thought and practice, from the British Fabian Society, through Marxism, to his own self-described “constructive socialism,” essentially making the case for socialism on moral and ethical grounds more than political ones.
As to the whitewashing of all of this in orthodox recountings of Helen’s life, that came later. During the 1910s and ‘20s, it was certainly public knowledge that Helen Keller had become engaged in socialist ideas, ideas which still at that time had political legitimacy. Following the 1917 October Revolution in Russia, and the first Red Scare events here in the U.S., such beliefs were being smeared and discredited in the public arena. Unions were being pummeled, organizers arrested and deported. To her credit, such attacks only further fueled Keller’s militancy.
What changed? While it’s pretty clear to me that Helen Keller never recanted her views, when she accepted the position to become the public face and principal fundraiser for the American Foundation for the Blind—a decision guided as much by economic necessity as a belief in the organization’s mission—Keller largely stepped aside from active involvement in the politics of socialism. That was in 1924. Keller continued to work for the organization for the next forty-four years, an organization that at times had a very controlling role in her life. Over those years, both the AFB itself as well as the media began to construct their own image of Keller, excising the radical aspects of her politics. Not unlike what was later done to Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks. The unexpected success of The Miracle Worker, both the play and the film, at the end of Keller’s life, only further sealed the deal.
ASH: Keller’s father was a Confederate captain and a slave owner. Did that factor into her politics and her radicalism? Or was that something she was too cut off from the world to understand before she learned to communicate with others?
JG: From what I know, it’s true that Keller’s family were racists and on more than one occasion Anne Sullivan nearly packed up and left the Keller home following arguments with them about it. Over time, and given their intimacy, I imagine that Anne Sullivan would have been a contributing influence in the evolution of Helen Keller’s own convictions. When Keller contributed to and wrote in support of the founding of the NAACP in 1914, it caused a furor in the Alabama press and among Keller’s relatives, although privately Keller does not appear to have stood up to her family, only in print. Psychologically, the degree to which this was a particular spur in Keller’s politicization I couldn’t say.
ASH: Your approach to this film seems to have been, to some extent, to replicate cinematically the experience of being deaf-blind, but in an unexpected or unsentimentalized way. Her Socialist Smile is not a biopic nor a conventional documentary. How did you arrive at this form for Keller’s ideas, her politics, and her story?
JG: Progressively. I’m not being coy here, but it’s hard to recount the trajectory of all the stages in arriving at the final construction of the film. While I don’t think anyone would describe any of my films as “conventional,” the absence of many of the traditional archival materials associated with cinematic explorations like this, as mentioned, naturally led to creative alternatives.
ASH: The extensive use of text from Keller’s writings on-screen, in silence, so that the viewers have to read it soundlessly, is unorthodox in documentaries. It creates a strange mental and physical space if seen in a movie theater. Seen at home, it creates a certain amount of unwarranted anxiety. “Will I be able to finish reading this before it leaves the screen? Should I pause the movie to read it?” What was your intention by presenting her writing that way?
JG: Keller’s ideas were front and center in my interest in making this film. Reading and writing were among the principal vehicles by which Keller both encountered and communicated with the world, so the literal inclusion of text seemed right. Beyond which I was not drawn to the other alternatives that usually come to mind. For a lot of reasons, I was disinclined toward dramatized recreations of Keller’s speeches, and while I could have rendered all the text in voice-over, that raised other concerns. The key thing was to assist in the way these ideas would be ingested. Without distraction.
I don’t know about you, but I prefer silence when I read. It’s true that the hardest challenge was determining how long to hold each card so that the viewer doesn’t feel rushed, but not holding it so long that it halts any momentum and concentration. I spent a lot of time on that, and of course, there are some viewers who are slower readers, but in that respect, home viewing shouldn’t cause anxiety. It enables anyone to pause the screen as need be.
ASH: Yes, but then they’re stopping the film, which they can’t do in a theater. Somehow that seems like an important difference. In your film, in particular.
JG: Personally, I’ve only once had the opportunity to see the film projected in a theater. A private projection with a handful of friends. It seemed that the timings were working. In fact, just yesterday, during a live conversation with the Essay Film Festival in the UK, the film’s narrator, Carolyn Forché, eloquently expressed how, for her, the approach I took allowed her time not only to read and comprehend the words but sufficient time to be with, and inside, the text.
ASH: Throughout the film, against an image of an empty theater, which I guess is the Paramount in Boston, we see questions from the audience that Keller was asked as part of her lecture performances on the vaudeville circuit of the day. When she’s asked who the greatest men of her time were, she answers Lenin, Edison, and Chaplin. Lenin we might have predicted based on what we learn in your film. But why do you think she chose Edison and Chaplin, two men whose work she could not experience? And how exactly did her public talks work?
JG: You’re correct about the Paramount Theater. Initially, I reached out to the managers of the Palace Theater in Manhattan, where Keller and Sullivan’s vaudeville debut took place. While they were quite responsive, they relayed that at that point Sponge Bob Square Pants: The Musical was on an open run and that it wouldn’t be feasible to film inside the theater. So I started to research where Keller may have appeared in Boston. As it turned out, it was in the former downtown B. F. Keith Theater, which was recreated inside the Paramount, literally adjacent to my office at Emerson College, which now owns the building.
It is not precisely true that Helen Keller couldn’t experience the work of Edison and Chaplin. Keller had somewhat of a friendship with Edison, apparently having bonded due to Edison being himself nearly deaf. Keller could, for example, listen to a phonograph record by feeling vibrations through the speaker. And when Anne Sullivan and Keller were in Hollywood making the film Deliverance in 1918, they got to meet Chaplin. There is an anecdote of his giving them a private showing of his latest film, A Dog’s Life, which Sullivan interpreted for Keller. I suppose Keller admired Edison’s capacity to literally bring light to the world and his myriad endeavors to foster new means of communication, and similarly, Chaplin’s ability to uplift the spirit and reach the hearts of so many around the world.
The Q&A sequences in the film are drawn from the period 1920–1924, when Keller and Sullivan were on the vaudeville circuit. Their “act,” so to speak, began with Anne Sullivan recounting a brief biography of Keller’s life and accomplishments and how she came to acquire language. Then Keller would enter, sit down at a piano, and deliver a prepared speech in which she emphasized how “only love can break down the walls that stand between us and our happiness.” Anne Sullivan would then illustrate to the audience how it was that she and Helen could communicate with one another through finger-spelling and through Helen’s placement of her hand upon a speaker’s lips and throat. The performance, which ran about twenty minutes, concluded with an audience Q&A, which was always the most popular part. From a long list I compiled of these exchanges from the American Foundation for the Blind, from newspaper articles, and from other Kelleriana, I extracted the sampling you see in Her Socialist Smile. While I chose to include more of her politically oriented statements, she could be quite funny and quick-witted.
ASH: At a certain point in the film we hear a punk version of the anthem “Bandiera Rosso,” performed by a Slovenian band called Pankrti, which I don’t know how to pronounce. Why did you choose that version of the “Avanti Popolo”?
JG: Music has long played a role in popular struggles. In a number of my films, I have referenced some of these songs, generally with an ear toward novel renditions in hopes of reinvigorating their anthemic power. As I approached editing a sequence of Keller quotes, her remark about loving the Red Flag and that she had one hung up in her office led me to think about “Bandiera Rosso.” When I happened on Pankrti’s version, I was immediately hooked. Not only did I like it on its own musical terms, but as I felt Keller had a punk spirit to her, it seemed to fit the bill. The song and the group are actually rather legendary in Slovenia, where, as it happens, the film is showing this week.
ASH: Congrats on that screening. But how do you pronounce their name? And did you know there was a Dutch punk band in the late 1970s called Ivy Green, who for some reason named themselves after the house Keller grew up in?
JG: While not a hundred percent sure that I pronounce Pankrti correctly myself, I believe you say “Pank-ruh-tee.” It’s Slovenian for “bastards.” I’m not familiar with Ivy Green, though I was peripherally aware of a Seattle-based punk band from the ’70s that called themselves Helen Keller. More recently, I learned that there’s a band in South Carolina called The Helen Keller Experience. They bill themselves as the world’s first all deaf and blind punk rock group. I’m curious to check them out.
ASH: At the beginning of the film we see words being spelled out on-screen in braille. Of course, we can’t touch and feel them. What they spell is not subtitled and appears before the film’s title. Then we hear Helen’s voice, which is difficult, even impossible to understand. Then the film’s title appears. Why did you start the film this way? It draws the viewer in, but in an oblique way, almost but not quite like a puzzle.
JG: While it is true that many people will not understand Helen’s spoken words, nor be able to decipher the braille letters, following each of the three braille cards and Helen’s reciting of them, you do get to hear her assistant Polly Thompson clearly conveying what’s just been written and said. Given how few recordings of Keller’s voice are accessible, I thought hearing her express that “you are not familiar with my voice” and “I have written from my soul” was an effective entry into the film ahead. Directly after that, the image of the black screen slowly zooms back and, in time, we see that the black is actually redactions from Helen’s FBI files, which precede the film’s title.
ASH: The film’s narrator often appears on-screen herself, shot in black-and-white in a recording studio, while most of the rest of the film is in color and outdoors. Could you tell me more how you decided to deploy Carolyn Forché throughout the film?
JG: Carolyn Forché is a poet and activist and, I think, one of our finest contemporary writers. I suppose Carolyn is best known for her 1981 book, The Country Between Us, poems which chronicled her experiences in El Salvador in the late 1970s as the brutal civil war there was beginning. At the time, it was a work that divided many critics and writers, who somehow felt that topical political concerns should be the province of journalism, but not poetry.
According to Keller, the evolution of her political consciousness came about via her study of the problems of the blind.
In those films of mine that employ narration, beyond finding someone with the needed voice-over skills, I’ve always felt that the choice could also reflect solidarity with others whose work aligns with mine. In the past this has included Howard Zinn, filmmaker Travis Wilkerson, and Carolyn, on my film Wake (Subic). Already when making that film I was wrestling with the convention of the invisible “voice of God” narrator. As there was information, generally contextual information, in Her Socialist Smile that I needed to impart, I decided it would be fresher to see the narrator, given the somewhat limited visual elements that comprise the film’s structure. I set it up in the studio not knowing how little or how much or any of the footage of the voice-over sessions I’d use.
ASH: We see shots of nature, of trees, of branches in the snow throughout the movie. Were these made near Keller’s home in Connecticut, near her childhood home in Alabama, or elsewhere? Did you want to create a sense of how Keller experienced the world with these images?
JG: One of a number of discoveries that happened while I was making the film was when I learned, probably about six months in, that the home in which Keller always maintained she’d been most happy, and which coincided with her most outwardly militant period, was only a ten-minute drive from where I live. The house, which you see towards the end of the film, is in Wrentham, Massachusetts, though it is not a tourist site. South of Boston, it was the home that Helen purchased in 1904 after graduating from Radcliffe, and where she and Anne Sullivan and, for a period, Anne Sullivan’s husband, John Macy, resided, until 1917, when the house had to be sold because they could no longer afford it. While only a few images are taken directly on the grounds, the majority are within the radius of the kinds of vegetation Keller would have experienced on her walks there, many of them filmed in my own backyard.
ASH: How did you come up with the title, Her Socialist Smile? What are your hopes for the film, in terms of how it might contribute to a revitalized socialism in the U.S.?
JG: Throughout my years of reading Helen Keller, I came away with the impression that, for the most part, she embraced the possibilities of radical social reform with tremendous enthusiasm and an upbeat attitude. You might know that one of her first works was a book-length essay entitled “Optimism,” in which she laid out a philosophy for practical, active optimism as a critical component for change-making. Given the persistent discrediting of socialism, and not just by conservatives, the film’s title was a means of conferring a positive aspect to the subject.
As to your other question, I’ve been thinking lately about Antonio Gramsci’s notion of the “war of position.” In the struggle to make societal transformation, specifically against a domineering and coercive capitalism, Gramsci believed that the first thing one needed to do was simply to get the issues on the table so that people are even discussing them, so that alternative ideas may begin to take root within the culture. In seeing that such a widely respected individual as Helen Keller had embraced socialist ideals, in such a considered way, and with such clarity and eloquence, I think the film can serve as another rivulet into the wider stream carrying these ideals forward.