scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Doc Talk: saluting a master; examining cannabis; protesting in Venezuela

Helen Keller, from "Her Socialist Smile."The DocYard

John Gianvito seeks out the hidden in America, the overlooked or covered-up ruins, relics, monuments, and writings that reveal the truth about who we are. He applies a style and method that are meditative, trenchant, and inventive and that provoke reflection and indignation. One of the great local documentary filmmakers, ranking with Frederick Wiseman and Errol Morris, he is celebrated in the DocYard retrospective “New England Legacy: John Gianvito” (Sept. 27-Oct. 3) at the Brattle Theatre.

In “Her Socialist Smile” (2020; screens Sept. 27, 7 p.m.) he presents a Helen Keller who transcends the revered image of her as seen in “The Miracle Worker” (1962), Arthur Penn’s celebrated adaptation of William Gibson’s play. Not only did Keller (1880-1968) overcome the disabilities of blindness and deafness, earn a degree from Radcliffe, and publish books, but she also tirelessly worked for the socialist cause, dreaming of a just society that embraced the disabled and all marginalized minorities and allowed women equal access to the political process.


Gianvito relies heavily on the texts of Keller’s prescient lectures, which wittily and passionately dissect the capitalist system and its evils. Some are heard in recordings of her own voice, which is barely intelligible and forces the listener to concentrate to make out what she is saying. Other speeches are recited by an actress over a black screen with no text, or are presented as text on a black screen, both methods simulating in part the delimited but focused consciousness of Keller. Intervening scenes of nature and weathered artifacts intensify the harsh realities Keller describes and the radical corrective measures she advocates.

Mother Jones's gravesite, from "Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind."The DocYard

But most people then preferred the more innocuous image of a woman who despite her challenges was able to achieve the limited status of a female in a patriarchal society. “Helen Keller struggling to point the way for the deaf, dumb, and blind is inspiring,” reads one newspaper response to her activism. “Helen Keller preaching socialism … is pitiful.”


“If we had a penetrating vision,” says Keller, “I know we could not, we would not, have endured what we saw — cruelty, ignorance, poverty, disease — all preventable, unnecessary.” A century later such vision remains elusive.

While the media focuses on the monuments to Confederate leaders that have been taken down, other markers and memorials to heroes of the struggle for freedom and justice are overlooked or forgotten. That’s the subject of Gianvito’s eloquent and understated Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind” (2007; screens Sept. 27 at 5:30 p.m.), which is inspired by Howard Zinn’s landmark 1980 book, “A People’s History of the United States.”

Gianvito shoots long takes of the weatherworn headstones of figures such as Frederick Douglass and John Brown and lingers on signs marking the sites of the massacres of Native Americans, enslaved people, and union demonstrators. He allows time to read the markers, and the violence and injustices described contrast with the tranquility of the intercut sequences of natural beauty and of the whispering wind. At the end of the film the pace quickens as today’s demonstrators march against racism, sexism, xenophobia, and war. “Greed is killing us,” reads one handwritten sign.

A conversation between John Gianvito and DocYard curator Abby Sun will take place following the two screenings. Gianvito’s documentaries “Wake: Subic” (2015),” “Vapor Trail (Clark)” (2010), and the compilation “Far from Afghanistan” (2012), to which he contributed a segment, can be streamed Sept. 27-Oct. 3.


Go to

Cannabis seen under a microscope. From "The Cannabis Question."© WGBH Educational Foundation

Controlled substance

Like most major issues in the country today, the subject of marijuana stirs diametrically opposed, seeming irreconcilable differences of opinion. Is the drug a panacea? Is it a plague? As Sarah Holt’s documentary “The Cannabis Question” explains neither side is correct but what is all too clear is that criminalization has resulted in the incarceration of thousands of otherwise innocent users — mostly people of color.

Holt investigates what has been learned about cannabis’s potential risks and medicinal benefits and how its legalization in 30 states after 80 years of prohibition has resulted in confusion and haphazard regulation. Because the federal government still classifies cannabis in the same category as heroin — illegal and without any medical benefit — such research has been limited. What has been discovered so far is fascinating, complex, and ambiguous. Though the drug poses potential dangers to teenagers and the unborn it can help treat seizures, autism, opioid addiction, and PTSD.

But any danger that cannabis poses doesn’t come close to the damage done by criminalization. Declared illegal in 1937 to target Mexicans and demonized in the 1970s during Richard Nixon’s war on drugs as a means of repressing radical youth and minorities, its regulation has served a political rather than a medical agenda. A case in point is a Black veteran prescribed cannabis for PTSD in Arizona , where it is legal, who was arrested while driving through Alabama, where it is not. He was arrested, charged with a felony, imprisoned, and because of the stress he experienced suffered a stroke. Today more than 40,000 people are incarcerated for similar offenses.


“The Cannabis Question” can be seen on PBS as part of the Nova series on Sept. 29 at 9 p.m. and can streamed at and via the PBS video app.

Go to

Interim Venezuelan President Juan Guaidó addresses an opposition rally in 2019.Priority Pictures/Andres Avellaneda Zeiter

Taking it to the streets

Nelson G. Navarrete and Maxx Caicedo’s documentary “A La Calle” demonstrates the power and limitations of popular, peaceful resistance. Shot by clandestine camera crews, it follows three years in the struggle by ordinary Venezuelans against the dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro — successor to Hugo Chávez — whose corrupt, brutal policies have bankrupted the country while enriching himself and his cronies. The filmmakers focus on Leopoldo López, the incarcerated leader of the movement whose matinee good looks and dogged charisma would make him an ideal role for George Clooney to play in a Hollywood version of the story. Meanwhile, recognized by the United States and numerous other countries as the legitimate leader of the country, interim President Juan Guaidó takes their case to the world. So far to no avail.

“A La Calle” can be streamed on HBO Max. Go

Peter Keough can be reached at