Ask Dr. Ruth
by Cat McAlpine
Ruth Westheimer stands only 4’ 7” tall and she knows it, mentioning her small stature frequently throughout the documentary Ask Dr. Ruth. She believes being small made her less intimidating when she took the world by storm talking frankly about sex. Ruth’s small stature also came in handy when she was grievously injured in the 1947-49 Palestine War, as she was able to stay in an overcrowded hospital by sleeping on a bookshelf.
Oh, that’s right. Ruth didn’t become Dr. Ruth until her 40’s. First she survived the holocaust in a Swiss orphanage, emigrated to Palestine, became a sniper for a Jewish paramilitary group during the war, started her education in Paris, fell in love and was married three times, emigrated to the United States, and raised a family.
Director Ryan White curates a beautiful narrative that explores Ruth’s constant position at the forefront of change and upheaval. The story flickers between a retelling of Ruth’s early life, the beginning of her career, and a reflection of what she’s managed to accomplish today. At 90 years old Ruth is still teaching classes, performing speeches, writing books, and giving advice. At one point she’s asked “Why write another book now, at 90?” (she’s published at least 30).
She replies with good humor, “What a stupid question.”
Ruth herself is a marvelous star. She’s proud of what she does – she’s kept recordings of all of her performances and you can spy flyers and posters of her appearances tacked up in her New York apartment. She’s warm and welcoming, a care-giver to her core, but she is also shockingly stoic for her jovial nature. Ruth keeps the events of her life at arm’s length. Accounts of past wars and lost loves are highlighted with animated re-enactments.
This is the point where I typically balk at documentaries. Animation or actor re-enactments often feel like a necessary evil in telling a story that cameras weren’t present for. I find the mixed media style off-putting and, honestly, tacky. In Ask Dr. Ruth though, the effect works pretty well. It helps that the dreamy animation is done with vignettes rather than characters mouthing a voice-over.
Toward the end of the film, there’s a super-cut montage of Ruth’s life. Black and white photos alternate with the beautiful animations and clips from 80’s talk shows. It’s wild and crazy, happy and sad, and so very, very Ruth.
This film is a heartwarming tale of what life is like as a refugee and an immigrant, a feminist icon who denies the label, and as a doting mother and grandmother. Allow yourself to be delightfully surprised by Ask Dr. Ruth.