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Ruth Gruber, the subject of Bob Richman's fascinating documentary Ahead of Time, which has just had its premiere at the 25th Haifa International Film Festival, is really two people, and Richman has made a film about both of them.
One is the present-day Ruth, a woman in her late nineties (yes, her nineties), who dresses impeccably, talks a mile a minute, sits amid her scrapbooks and clippings in her Manhattan apartment and is gracious and accessible. She may remind you of your grandmother for a minute, but then, when you hear what she's done with her life, you find yourself a bit baffled.
Because, as she reminisces, you'll meet the Ruth who is almost indescribably gifted, ambitious and adventurous. The Brooklyn-born Gruber got a PhD (on Virginia Woolf) in Germany at age 20, making headlines all over the world. She then became a photojournalist and was the first reporter to enter the Soviet-controlled Arctic in 1935. Next, she was sent by the Roosevelt administration to report on America's newest frontier, Alaska. In 1944, her life changed from an adventure to a mission, when she escorted a group of Holocaust survivors out of Europe. She went on to cover the Nuremberg trials and the saga of the Exodus.
For first-time director Richman, who has a long and distinguished career as a documentary cameraman (he recently lensed the much-talked about The September Issue, about Vogue magazine), it was a challenge to reconcile the two sides of Gruber. Richman, who has worked most often in the cinema-verite style, in which the camera follows subjects and allows them to reveal themselves, says, "The present-tense story led me into the past-tense story. She constantly surprised me with her amazing youthfulness. The present-tense Ruth inspired me even more than the past-tense Ruth."
Why did he choose to end the story when Gruber was 36, in the late Forties?
"I felt that this was the culmination of her becoming who she is," he says. "After this, of course she does lots more wonderful things. But I felt that the story of her escape from Brooklyn, getting the German PhD, going to the Soviet Arctic and Alaska, meeting Harold Ickes and escorting the refugees, everything leads to the moment where she brings the world the story of the Exodus."
RICHMAN IS echoing what his subject says herself in the film, that after she met the Holocaust refugees in 1944, she knew that "my life would be inextricably bound" to stories of "rescue and survival."
Gruber, with directness and guilelessness, blows the fashionable myth of journalistic objectivity out of the water, when she says, "I was never just a journalist." She was open in her desire to help many of her subjects. One woman from the group Gruber escorted to the displaced persons camp in 1944 wanted to get married, but there was nowhere to buy a veil, as all of the material was being used for parachutes. Gruber contacted her mother, who lent the woman her veil. "I knew that Ruth feels the burden," the former refugee says, still grateful after all these years.
Richman's first experience as a director was a happy one. He attributes this, in part, to the fact that he felt a rapport with his subject. "She's fascinating and so easy to interview. And she was constantly challenging my preconceived notion of what it is to be old."
Although he had always thought of directing, he had never taken the step before. When the producers ("three women who viewed Ruth as a kind of surrogate mother and mentor") came and asked him to helm their film about her, he hesitated. But then he thought of Ruth's story, and how she had always made the most of all the opportunities that came her way. Taking her as his example, "I walked through the door of opportunity."
Shooting film was a hobby for Richman as he grew up, and when he saw the ground-breaking documentary films of the Maysles brothers, particularly Salesman, Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens, he knew he had found his life's calling. He began working with them as a crew member, then became a cameraman.
But shooting a cinema verite documentary demands far more skill and judgment from its cameraman than a conventional film, and this experience served him well when he began directing. Likening a cinema verite documentary to basketball, he says, "A coach on a basketball team can't be running down the court with the players," but in this kind of film, "the cameraman is right there with them. Right in the middle of everything."
Running down the court with Ruth Gruber is an experience he'll never forget.