Documentary, 'Ask Dr. Ruth' Fails To Capture The Complexity Of Its Subject

May 3, 2019

It seems that just about any person, place or thing you can think of may already be the subject of a documentary. In other words, there are too many documentaries and many of them ought to be in print, because their makers don’t know what to show and seem to forget that these many documentaries are in fact movies. And for the most part, Ask Dr. Ruth might be better  written than filmed.

Also, like too many motion picture documentaries, Ask Dr. Ruth is content to show us how wonderful its subject is, how feisty at the age of 90, how smart, how good at breaking taboos. Ultimately, though, treating Westheimer like a saint, misses the depth of her humanity.

Ruth Westheimer became famous in this country in the 1980s as a radio and then television sex therapist. She’s blunt, graphic and she manages to make talk about sex not lurid. She giggles plenty, but she makes sure that talk about sex – for herself, for callers and for members of her audience – gets past embarrassment, so people can talk about the subject plainly. Two of her critics call her reckless and glib, but the movie isolates them early in the film and no mention of such disparaging ideas arise again in the movie. Dr. Ruth has survived criticism, and to this day she talks – and talks – and teaches about sex. She’s still clear and direct, and she is not a modest woman. Not exactly arrogant, but sure of herself.

The movie gives a pretty good account of Ruth Westheimer’s life, which is in fact a remarkable story of guts, determination, intelligence and a refusal to give in to sorrow and ill-treatment. Westheimer was born Orthodox Jewish near Frankfort, Germany in 1928. When she was 10, the Nazis put her father in a labor camp and soon young Ruth was put on a kindertransport to Switzerland. She never saw her parents again – Nazi records show that her father was murdered in Auschwitz, but the official report for her mother simply says “disappeared.” Ruth lived in an orphanage in Switzerland, and then in Israel for a few years, where she joined the Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary group. She still knows how to assemble an automatic weapon of the time. She married twice early on, before she came to America, and then in this country she married for good. She has two children and a bunch of grandchildren.

Where Ask Dr. Ruth fails as film is in what’s on screen, because director Ryan White misses the fact that Ruth Westheimer is a far more interesting sight than the dreary animations he uses for moments in her life before there was film of her. The animations show a sad-faced young Ruth in the orphanage and at other emotionally critical times. But the drawings have no flavor to them, and the motion is awkward and poorly-done.

Shots of Westheimer’s actual face might do a lot better and would bring to the visual image the complexity the animations just don’t have. Ruth Westheimer is a survivor of the Holocaust, who doesn’t talk about it much, and according to her children and grandchildren thinks she should simply get on with life and not dwell on the past. The sight of her smiles and maybe forced laughter tells a lot more about how this tough human being deals with her horrific childhood than the generic face in the animations.

To add to the mystery of Ruth Westheimer’s face is what her offspring have to say about her when she’s not in public. She doesn’t talk about sex at home, and what the movie might flesh out is how guarded this woman really is. She has far more to say when she’s on microphone or on camera, or at a speaking engagement than when she’s in her private life. And that is interesting, but unhappily Ask Dr. Ruth seems at a loss for how to show it.