When Dr. Ruth Westheimer ascended to the pop culture stratosphere in the early 1980s, most people knew her as the little German lady who talked dirty on TV — the sex therapist who made David Letterman squirm and Johnny Carson blush.
Most people simply didn’t register the important work that Westheimer was actually doing. By speaking frankly about sex, Westheimer helped advance important public health initiatives concerning consent, contraception and STDs. She was one of the few public figures to address the specifics of safe sex during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. And she improved a lot of sex lives, especially for women.
While Dr. Ruth seemed to be an open book, her personal history was not. Westheimer is a Holocaust survivor, losing her entire family to the Nazis. She was orphaned at 10 years old, eventually emigrating to the United States in the 1950s as a single mother.
Initially working as a house cleaner, she raised her kids and educated herself, earning a doctorate from Columbia.
Westheimer’s incredible personal story is at the center of “Ask Dr. Ruth,” the highly anticipated documentary film opening this weekend in theaters and next month, via the digital streaming service Hulu. “Ask Dr. Ruth” looks poised to the Next Big Thing in the documentary world, following last year’s run of box office hits like “RBG,” “Free Solo,” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
The new movie is directed by filmmaker Ryan White, a 2004 graduate of Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies program. Last month, White and Westheimer – 90 years old and going strong – hosted a sold-out screening at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham.
“I have an obligation to live large and make a dent in this life,” she told the audience.
Westheimer, who will turn 91 next month, took the stage with White and producer Jessica Hargrave, following the screening, for a Q&A with the audience. She delighted movie-goers with her stories and clear affection for White, praising his work on the film and declaring them lifelong friends.
The feeling was mutual, as White said he immediately fell in love with Westheimer, whose verve and force of personality helped forge a visible bond between filmmaker and subject. White is photographed with Westheimer at Duke Chapel on social media the day of the screening.
She wasn’t shy about starting an early campaign for the film to earn an Oscar nomination, just like biographical documentaries “RBG,” about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” about TV personality Fred Rogers. The film earned glowing reviews when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and has a “fresh” rating of 90% on RottenTomatoes.com.
White has earned a solid reputation in the documentary world with his previous projects, including the Emmy-nominated Netflix series “The Keepers” and the Sundance award-winning “The Case Against 8,” on the battle to overturn California’s controversial Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriages. “The Case Against 8” was short-listed for an Oscar.
White spoke with The News & Observer about the new film, his time at Duke, and the power of Dr. Ruth’s story in these trying times.
Q: Dr. Ruth’s personal story is so incredible, yet no one seemed to know any of this. How did you become acquainted with Dr. Ruth and her story?
A: Well, I was a child and a teenager when she was really famous in the 1980s and 1990s. I had no idea of the back story, I just knew her as a pop culture figure. I didn’t really understand the true impact of Dr. Ruth on the country.
I got a call from our producer Rafael Marmor asking if I’d like to have dinner with her. It was amazing to learn she was about to turn 90 years old and she was still going a mile a minute, still working and teaching university classes. And when I met her I just fell in love.
She’s still so full of energy. The way she just connected with everybody in the restaurant where I met her. The host, the waiter, the chefs she wanted to compliment, the driver. She’s so invested in every human interaction that she has. I thought: This checks all the boxes for a great documentary.
Q: The film covers the entire arc of her life, and it’s almost impossible how much history is in here, from the World War II to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and up to now.
A: I would argue that more so than any living public figure, she has the most incredible survival story. It’s almost like a Forrest Gump-style story where she intersects with so much human history that it’s unbelievable. And now her story is relevant again as an immigrant story.
I think that’s one of the most important parts of the film. I mean, it’s indisputable that she became this American nation treasure, and still is. This is a refugee story. This is an American Dream story. It’s a huge reminder that we need right now in a country that is so xenophobic.
One of my favorite passages in the film is when we see her emigrating to the U.S. in the ‘50s, as a single mom, with nothing. She worked as a housemaid when she first got here and didn’t speak English.
As you see in the film, she’s been pretty apolitical as a public figure in the past. But since making this film she’s been very outspoken about the Trump administration’s stance on immigration — especially children being separated from their families. Because that happened to her. I hope this film is a powerful reminder of why we want to accept refugees in our country. It’s really important to her that we have these conversations now.
Q: Your film features these beautiful animation sequences that recreate episodes from Dr. Ruth’s past. How did you develop that approach?
A: At that first dinner, she told me how she had kept all of her diaries from childhood. She has in-depth diaries from the time she left Nazi Germany and ended up in the orphanage in Switzerland and kind of ping-ponged across the world as an orphan. This is an incredible boon, as a documentary filmmaker, to have this kind of archive to work with. The question became, how do we illustrate that?
We started the film without animation, and we were using archival footage of World War II and Germany. But it didn’t feel intimate, it didn’t feel right. So what we ended up doing is we read all those diaries and we chose the memories that we thought were best to tell the story of her childhood. Then we animated them by working with an incredible animation company, Neko Productions. Everything is all hand-drawn. The style is impressionistic and was inspired by storybooks in Germany and Europe at that time.
You know, the diaries and the animation were a good way for Dr. Ruth to get back into these events. She really does not like to delve deeply into that painful past. She doesn’t like to talk about it a lot. So this was a way to cover that past without having to talk to her about it over and over — because she had already written about it in the diaries.
Q: Do you have a sense of why she was willing to revisit her past now?
A: She had said no to documentaries for decades. And I think it’s because she knew a documentary would dig into her past. But the idea that she was turning 90 — she was just on the “Today” show, actually, like 30 minutes ago. I heard her say that she saw this as an opportunity to create gravestone for her parents, who never had graves. I think at this point in her life, she thought it was important to go on the record and tell what happened to her.
Q: “Ask Dr. Ruth” is the latest in a long line of documentary films and series for you. Looking back on your time with the Center for Documentary Studies program, what do you value most about those years?
A: Well, I always wanted to be a filmmaker, and I studied photography in high school. At Duke, when I discovered the CDS, it was just the perfect combination for my passions for film and photography and nonfiction storytelling.
I mean, CDS — that was my lifeline. Duke’s film program has grown tremendously since I went there, but it was still a very well-oiled machine back then. I worked with incredible professors, visiting professors, alumni — they all helped to stoke my passion. That’s all I did when I was at Duke. My friends joke that junior and senior year they never saw me because I was off making student documentaries.
Q: You’ve also been a big part of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham through the years.
A: Right, every one of my films has played Full Frame. I go back every year, even when I don’t have a film, because I get so much energy from it.
To me, it’s one of the best festivals in the world. Somehow their programming teams always dig out these incredible discoveries. It’s really hard to get noticed in the documentary world. You can make an amazing film that never gets anywhere, for a million different reasons that aren’t fair. Festivals like Full Frame enable all these good films to get a little light on them.
And it’s amazing that there’s an all non-fiction film festival where the audience is just ravenous for it. We just showed “Ask Dr. Ruth” at Fletcher Hall [at the Carolina Theatre] and that’s like, what, 1,000 people? And every seat was filled. Everyone stayed for the Q&A. The idea that Triangle audiences are that passionate about documentary filmmaking, that’s just thrilling.
Q: We’ve seen a run of great documentaries in the last few years that have actually done really well at the box office, too. What’s behind that, do you think?
A: I don’t think there’s a difference in the documentaries being made. There have always been great documentaries. I think what’s different in the last couple years is that the audiences are turning out in ways that no one predicted.
The Hollywood industry is being forced to recognize that. Movies like “RBG” and “Free Solo” – what those films proved last year is that, if you give documentaries the opportunity, they’re are going to play gangbusters with audiences. You just have to give them the opportunity to play in theaters.
Q: It seems like your film is maybe the next to be caught up in that current.
A: I hope so. I hope it’s the kind of story that film lovers in general will want to see, and then it can be part of this rising tide for documentaries. Dr. Ruth’s story has this built-in appeal. On face value, it’s a sex documentary – it’s the funny old lady with the accent talking about sex. But then the film digs so much deeper.
“Ask Dr. Ruth” will be screened at the Carolina Theatre, the Rialto Theatre and the Chelsea Theater this weekend. It will be available on Hulu June 1.