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Remembering the Socialism of Helen Keller

John Gianvito

Helen Keller is well known to Americans as a writer, educator, and advocate for the disabled. But few know of her commitment to socialist politics as the route to a more just world.

Despite Helen Keller's enormous celebrity, little attention has been given to her socialist beliefs and political activism. (Bettmann via Getty Images)

Interview by
Miguel Savransky

Her Socialist Smile, John Gianvito’s fifth solo-directed feature, depicts one of America’s pioneering socialist figures, Helen Keller.

Gianvito is a unique director in the contemporary US film scene — working independently with a small crew and on modest budgets, he personally handles multiple aspects of the filmmaking process (production, camera, sound, editing, and script). Gianvito is also one of a handful of filmmakers in the United States whose socialist politics is front and center in almost all of his productions.

In 2001’s The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein, Gianvito tells three separate but interconnected stories dealing with the social effects of US military operations in the Gulf War. Gianvito’s 2007 film, Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind, is a meditative journey that rediscovers the forgotten graves of political militants throughout American history. Gianvito followed up with his two-film series, For Example, the Philippines, composed of Vapor Trail (Clark) (2010) and Wake (Subic) (2015), focusing on the environmental and health damages left by former US military bases in the Philippines.

Her Socialist Smile is a documentary about Helen Keller, the essayist, orator, and activist who learned to speak with the help of Anne Sullivan and who, as time passed, became one of the most cherished public figures in US history. Less known is the fact that she was a remarkable socialist activist, and it is to this neglected aspect that Gianvito decides to turn his camera.

One of the most striking features of Her Socialist Smile is the prominence given to Keller’s own writings, exhibited in simple white letters against a black background (and interpreted by the voice of poet Carolyn Forché). Just as striking, through long delicate shots of leaves, branches, small animals, fire embers, stones, plants, and other natural textures, Gianvito delves into artistic territory largely unfamiliar to the conventional biopic.

Miguel Savransky spoke to the director for Jacobin about the inspiration behind his film and about the need to recover the history of American socialists like Keller.


MS

I understand that part of what drew you to making Her Socialist Smile was the challenge of creating a film about a historical figure, Helen Keller, for whom there is almost no extant audio-visual material. How did you approach that challenge? What was your process in trying to capture the experience of a blind and deaf person in a medium like film, which is in essence something visible and audible?

JGT

First, a small clarification: it is not accurate that virtually no audio-visual material of Helen Keller has been preserved. While there’s not exactly a plethora of extant motion picture or audio recordings, various archival materials do exist. These include the silent feature film Deliverance (1919) and a few documentaries made during Keller’s later years, among them the hour-long biographical documentary The Unconquered, which actually won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1955.

None of these, however, overtly chronicle Keller’s political beliefs and activities. Given Keller’s enormous celebrity, and that for nearly twenty of her eighty-eight years she was very publicly engaged in political activism and the promotion of socialist ideals, there are multiple theories as to why so little visual and audio documentation of this dimension of her life survives. Some of these I address in the film. Far more telling is the fact that, regardless of this absence, Keller’s socialist writings, essays, texts of speeches, etc., have always been available, and yet this critical dimension of her adult life remains largely unknown.

It was my encounter with these writings and my feelings about their ongoing pertinence that propelled the project. Relying as much as I do on on-screen text may of course strike some as inherently anti-cinematic. While I can make the argument, as I do with my students, that there are no actual rules to filmmaking, it was the risk I was willing to take. The written word was the predominant way that Helen Keller communicated to the world. As such, I was comfortable having text have a central role in the film, though, admittedly, only after I finally committed myself to embrace the challenge of the project. Other visual and aural ingredients found their way into the film organically over the three years I worked on the project and immersed myself in Keller’s writings and in her world.

MS

One of the aims of your film is to restore the centrality of Helen Keller’s socialist militancy and deemphasize her often sanitized image as an advocate of disabled rights. What was it that first drew you to Helen Keller the socialist, and what led you to tell her story in the way you did?

JGT

I first became aware of the fact that Helen Keller had been a very ardent socialist over twenty years ago in some writing by historian Howard Zinn. Intrigued, I tracked down some of her political writings and was immediately struck not only by the power of her prose but also by just how resonant her words felt to the present time, as if they were written that week. There was not only a clear sense of class consciousness but a firm understanding of what profound steps would need to be taken to bring about systemic change. It seemed to me that this had potential to be developed into a film project. However, it was at that time that I began to discover how little documentation there appeared to be of this aspect of Keller’s life, beyond the written texts.

As I searched the archives I could find no motion-picture material of Keller’s socialist speaking events, or photographs or audio recordings. While materials exist in all sorts of places, Helen Keller’s principal archives are housed at the American Foundation for the Blind in New York, an organization where Keller worked for some forty years. The executive director was quite conservative, having once written to one of the organization’s trustees that “Helen Keller’s habit of playing around with communists and near communists has long been a source of embarrassment to her conservative friends.” So it is possible that there was no incentive initially felt to preserve materials reflective of that spectrum of Keller’s life.

I then became aware that there existed an additional archive, the Helen Keller International located in downtown Manhattan. Before I could visit, however, and as mentioned in the film, it was destroyed by falling debris from the destruction of the World Trade towers on September 11, 2001. At that point, I concluded that, while a compelling subject, for a filmmaker there really wasn’t a way to approach a conventional dramatization of her life — nor was I interested in doing that.

Fast forward to about four years ago. I had just finished a film and was hunting around for a new project, and the Keller project idea began to resurface. As I often recount, it was as if I heard a voice in my head saying, “Okay, so you want to make a film about the most famous deaf-blind woman. You have no images, no sounds — that’s actually an interesting creative problem. You shouldn’t shy away from it.” It was at that point that I began working on the project in earnest.

Over a period of time, I read the major biographies of Keller, I read her own autobiographies, collections of her letters, essays, speeches, I read decades’ worth of newspaper articles in the existing Keller archives. My focus throughout was always on her political imagination. My interest was never in making a biographical documentary, and what biographical details are contained in the film are tangential to the primary focus on the evolution and import of Keller’s political thinking. I wasn’t setting out to underscore her militant side at all costs. These convictions were manifest and consistent.

MS

There’s a strong emphasis on nature and natural beauty throughout the film. How does this foregrounding of nature tie into the film’s political emphasis?

JGT

One of the things that stood out to me in the process of reading Helen Keller’s autobiographies was her pronounced awareness of and ardor for her natural surroundings. It’s clear that she relished every opportunity to spend time in the woods and gardens around her home, which she describes quite vividly and from which she obviously drew much sustenance. While I haven’t come upon Keller making an explicit linkage between these sentiments and her political ideals, for me the interstitial connections are not difficult to draw.

I have long maintained that a great deal of what ails us as a society is that we perceive encounters with nature, if we perceive them at all, as luxuries and not as necessities. The factors are many, including the long historical consequences of the privatization and exploitation of the commons, as well as the benumbing effects of capitalist servitude that deprive so many of the time, energy, or opportunity for such experiences. There are literal impacts to the senses themselves. I remember a conversation I heard years ago now with the poet W. S. Merwin speaking about the erosion of our olfactory senses in the contemporary world, to the extent that most of us are only aware of our sense of smell in the presence of something unpleasant.

As a further small illustration, I grew up in New York City and had I not had the personal privilege of a family with the ability to vacation in the Colorado Rockies, my experience of seeing stars in the sky would only have been in picture books. To have the simple nightly experience, as I did in the mountains, to stare up into the vast expanse of the Milky Way — I believe it changes you. At one time on this planet, such wonder was available to all, and yet, today, unless one is fortunate enough to live at far remove from urban light and air pollution or possess the means to travel to such places, this awesome and humbling everyday spectacle is invisible.

I don’t support a culture or a politics wherein human beings are posited as the center of the universe. And so, while it is true that my attempt was to evoke almost tactile imagery of nature in ways that resonate with Keller’s own relation to her environment, it’s also true that I personally believe we are each meant to have a daily active commune with the so-called natural world, the absence and alienation from which sickens the spirit, contributing to the world as we find it — profoundly, I think.

MS

Many of your films share a common desire to rescue long-buried figures and traditions of the Left. Could you say something about this aspect of your filmmaking, and about how history can inform our present-day struggles?

JGT

One of the continual challenges in the building of social movements is how to sustain pressure and commitment to a cause. Given the scale and ferocity of opposing forces, the risks of demoralization are high. When change around a particular issue doesn’t happen after a year or two of concerted effort, people understandably get discouraged and can even drop away from the fight. Among other uses, the study of history provides perspective, a view of the long game. One sees, for example, that virtually all the rights any society possesses were the consequence of considerably lengthy and painful struggle, often rife with setbacks along the way. One comes to understand that the present rests upon the successes and failures of these battles.

Even at the bleakest times, it can be instructive to look to the past for sustenance in moving forward. One of my Boston mentors, in addition to Noam Chomsky, was the late radical historian and activist Howard Zinn, his work having been the direct inspiration for my film Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind.

One of the stories Howard would tell had to do with his time in the American South in the early 1950s. During that period, when speaking with African American men and women, he asked if they could envision an end to segregation. The answer, Howard said, was typically, “Well, perhaps my grandchildren will see this,” or it was felt still to be a distant dream. And yet, in a seemingly sudden turn of events, in 1954 you have the landmark Brown v. Board of EducationSupreme Court case declaring racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional. The following year, you have Rosa Parks’s action refusing to yield her bus seat to a white man, which sparks the Montgomery bus boycott, leading not only to another Supreme Court decision that would integrate Montgomery’s buses but, out of that protest, Martin Luther King’s emergence onto the national stage and the rapid burgeoning of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s that brought about some significant legislation and social gains.

Howard’s point was that even when the landscape for change looks unlikely, if there is foment happening underground, circumstances can all of a sudden align to enable that unrest to break through and build momentum and traction toward progress. History can fuel us with such lessons. It can provide other sorts of perspective as well.

For me, it is useful for audiences, especially here in the United States, to know that socialism had a respected and, at times, even robust place within the political discourse of our nation’s history. As studies reveal increasing numbers of young people today expressing support for some conception of socialism, the effort is underway within the Republican Party and conservative media to foster a new Red Scare. Setting aside that many of the politicians and policies being ascribed as socialist would not at all conform to an honest definition of the term, it’s felt that one need only brandish the socialist epithet to tarnish any individual or progressive initiative. In fact, even within the Democratic Party there are many folks quick to distance themselves from any suggestion that they could be seen as a socialist, including our current president and vice president.

When Helen Keller writes in 1912 about the Republican and Democratic parties as merely two sides of the “great Capitalist party,” it’s easy to feel that little has changed. But the landscape is shifting. The unpredicted popularity of a self-declared democratic socialist, Bernie Sanders, is just one indicator, and it is revealing how his messages found support from voters not previously reached by mainstream politics.

Additionally, as we were speaking of Chomsky, and given my penchant for quotes, here is one of his that springs to mind: “Historical amnesia is a dangerous phenomenon not only because it undermines moral and intellectual integrity, but also because it lays the groundwork for crimes that still lie ahead.”

In the efforts to deprive people of their own history, as one can find in every corner of the globe, the dominant narrative becomes that of those in power, narratives that serve the interests of power. Stripped away are the experiences and wisdom of all those who came before, particularly when it’s the lessons of those contributing to the long historical struggle toward a more just and egalitarian society. And when not wholly erased, they are decidedly softened, all the hard, radical edges removed, as witnessed in the popular image of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and Helen Keller. I am pleased to say that I see this, too, changing.