Expanding access for Her Socialist Smile

Chris Stults, Associate Curator, Film/Video

Sep 20, 2021

Helen Keller, Her Socialist Smile

Below, Associate Film/Video Curator Chris Stults shares a notable component of our pay-what-you-can streaming presentation of the new documentary Her Socialist Smile. It'll screen in the Film/Video Theater September 21–22 at 7 PM, with open captioning during the screening on the 22nd, and an audio descriptive version of the film is available to watch here through September 26.

John Gianvito is one of the most radical American independent filmmakers, both formally and politically. His previous films have retold progressive histories of the US through historical landmark signs (Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind) or been among the few contemporaneous American films to be critical of the Gulf War (The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein).

Last fall, I was excited to catch the US premiere of Gianvito’s new film, Her Socialist Smile, at one of the New York Film Festival’s virtual offerings. It's a formally adventurous look at Helen Keller’s little-known work as a pro-union socialist and activist. It also conveys a better sense of Keller’s personality and sense of humor than most other representations of her that I’ve encountered. The NYFF’s presentation of the film had captions for deaf viewers but I was surprised that there wasn’t an audio descriptive version for vision-impaired audiences. Accessibility issues are increasingly in the foreground for arts venues and filmmakers and, especially for this film, an audio-descriptive option, which describes a film’s visuals through a new audio track, seemed invaluable.

We’ve shown John’s work in the past so it was easy to reach out to him and ask if he was working on (or had considered) creating an audio descriptive track for Her Socialist Smile. He hadn’t but was really interested in the idea. The Wexner Center ended up figuring out how we could offer him some seed money to have this track created for our online presentation. Along with these funds, he was able to get additional money from a board member at the Perkins School for the Blind, the oldest school for the blind in the US and where Helen Keller once studied. John had to create a new edit of the film—it’s about 10 minutes longer—to allow enough time for the large amount of text in the film to be read easily. Much of the film is either text or somewhat abstract so it’s a challenging project, but the end result is a much more graceful audio descriptive track than you usually find.

Recently, our Film/Video Studio program worked with filmmaker Rodney Evens to integrate an audio descriptive track into his film Vision Portraits and since then we’ve been talking a lot about accessibility tools (especially for online presentations of films). It will only be increasingly common for us to help filmmakers create these materials and this work with John Gianvito is one potential model for us to follow. This presentation of the various versions of Her Socialist Smile is somewhat unique but will hopefully make this radical film available to a spectrum of audiences.


Top of page: Helen Keller, from Her Socialist Smile; image courtesy of Grasshopper Films

Image description: A black and white archival image of Helen Keller seen on the right, in profile from the shoulders up in what looks to be an office or classroom. She's seated in front of a braille typewriter and both of her hands are on the machine, operating it to type on a piece of paper.