John Gianvitos experimental documentary Her Socialist Smile discusses Helen Keller’s full-fledged embrace of socialist ideas. This is an important contribution to the knowledge we currently have of Helen, a deaf-blind pioneer (and client of The Miracle Worker, so to speak). However, the format this film takes is sometimes unwieldy and staggering in its complexity.

The film mostly proceeds as a history of Helen’s socialist ideas – starting from when she first became enamoured with Marxist philosophy, to the speeches she made across the country (and sometimes around the world). However, the film has an odd habit of bombarding the viewer with large streams of text and not giving the viewer enough time to read everything, let alone digest what it says. I have not done as much reading for a film before, and I do watch foreign films on a regular basis!

It is as if one has brought a museum exhibit home and attempted to condense it into an hour and half film. Exhibits are typically intended to be done at one’s own pace – and alas, the hour and a half run-time is not conducive to contemplation. I feel, after viewing this film, as if I have been struck by a mallet and then asked what ideas stick. Stars are spinning around my eyes, but I am inundated with knowledge that I appreciate having – however, I just wonder if the information could have been conveyed in a different way, or in a more accessible way.

It is ironic that, as it stands, many deaf-blind people would not be able to access this film without further support. I can understand the focus is on Helen’s ideas rather than her disability, but she is still a person with a disability and everyone ought to have the chance to learn from her.

I come from the close reading tradition – having degrees in English literature and law does that to you. I can make a mountain of a molehill and used to write analyses of one or two lines in works of literature. The sheer amount of text this film provides does not allow me to engage in the same level of analysis I would otherwise engage in. Helen’s ideas and life experience are so important, that I do not want to rush or skim or become glossy-eyed. Had I been given more time to pause and view at my leisure, or to take breaks from it like a miniseries, I would have approached the film differently, and it may have helped my appraisal of it.

As it stands now, I did learn a few things such as:

  • That Helen experienced the devastation of Hiroshima, along with her secretary by visiting its aftermath, and even provided tips on how to assist people with disabilities in Japan;
  • That Helen supported the Soviet socialist experiment, and had to come to terms with the devastation that was caused to the country in the 1920s;
  • That Helen ultimately came to realize that the Communist Manifesto could mean many things to many people, including people who wanted to manipulate others;
  • That both superpowers cracked down on evils of ‘socialism’ generalizing what they disliked to cover socialism in general; and,
  • That Helen lost many of her possessions in a house fire.

The use of bullet points is my attempt to provide the information in a more succinct manner, as I wish this documentary would have done.

I hope the ideas the film espouses will continue to be disseminated over time when I and others have the opportunity to digest them more fully.

Screening as part of Hot Docs, April 29 to May 9. 2021.

About the Author

Michael McNeely law student graduate, entertainment and accessibility critic; filmmaker; and aspiring actor. He enjoys meaningful representations of LGBT folks and those with disabilities in the popular media, and is waiting for the day where nuance, instead of stereotype and prejudice, is the norm. Michael is deaf-blind, meaning that he enjoys the presence of subtitles and other accessibility features.