JOHN GIANVITO: “MY SPIRITUAL AND POLITICAL BELIEFS ARE ROOTED IN THE NATURAL WORLD”

JOHN GIANVITO: “MY SPIRITUAL AND POLITICAL BELIEFS ARE ROOTED IN THE NATURAL WORLD”

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Photo by Jonathan Schwartz

By José Sarmiento Hinojosa & Mónica Delgado

Over the course of four years, the perspectives over the thinking process of filmmaker extraordinaire John Gianvito have remained solid, but it’s fundamental to read his ideas through the passage of time, contemplating the current moment of the first part of this interview, in 2017 (amidst the Trump administration), and the second one, in 2021 (in its aftermath), on the making of his latest documentary Her Socialist Smile (2020), about the activist, socialist side of Helen Keller. Our 2017 interview was meant to be included in a cinema and politics dossier that never saw the light of day, but nonetheless, perfectly articulated Gianvito’s political ideas and filmmaking ethos as a catalyst of the problems he saw of post-colonialism issues, the exercise of capitalism and American imperialism and its aftermath in its own history and the history of countries as the Philippines.

Four years later, we approached John to talk about Her Socialist Smile, which follow the same vein of his previous works like Profit Motive and the Whispering wind (2017), this time channeling the voice of Helen Keller through a text-heavy documentary that has a particular emphasis on silence and what is being said, of activism through the voice of someone who became famous as a differently-abled woman who overcame her own limitations, to find the immediate resistance of a patriarchal society who rejected her socialist views. In Her Socialist Smile, we see Keller’s own evolution of thinking through her most human side, and the double-whammy represented in her “disability” and disadvantage as a socialist woman. Our 2021 interview then, is a logical follow up of our first preoccupations and a proper conclusion of our first conversation, since the topics we covered in both years are very much in agenda, today.

PART I (2017)

Desistfilm: Let’s talk about your choices on narrative/experimental and documentary film: You started with an experimental narrative feature like Fernanda Hussein, to move to the experimental documentary with Profit Motive and a more formal documentary style with your latter works. Do you find any particular style serves you better for the message you want to convey?

John Gianvito: While it is not difficult for me to discern thematic and aesthetic connections between each of my films, what is characterized as the ‘style’ of the work is something that emerges organically. It materializes and evolves in the making but it is never something I feel I am imposing in advance. Sometimes one feels like writing poetry, sometimes prose. Form follows function.

Desistfilm: Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind is an exceptional, one of a kind documentary. After 400 years of struggle for political rights in America, do you think it is telling that this film seems to resonate specially in current times? Is America politically producing its new victims today? Or are those victims an impulse for memory, for new activism?

John Gianvito: Profit Motive was inspired by the ground-breaking, inspiratory work of the late radical historian Howard Zinn who always believed that the select study of history could help us understand why the world is the way it is, and, as importantly, what we can do to make things better.  Certainly there is a great deal about the current state of things in the U.S. that beggars belief, so terrifyingly insane are so many of the policies and practices of the current administration. For many observers, the Trump presidency is utterly without precedent, even comparisons to the Nixon/Watergate era paling by comparison. At such times, understanding how previous tyrannical regimes came into power and how that power was undermined can be quite helpful. It is also important to maintain a holistic view of the situation that besets us. Not just here in the U.S. but all over, the issue isn’t only the fascistic behaviors of the Trumps of this world but the systemic, structural problems that enable the exercise of such power.

Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (2007)

I should add that I would hope that Profit Motive doesn’t come across as solely or even predominantly a chronicle of victimhood under capitalism. Indeed those cut down through their efforts to forge a better, fairer world are countless, and many are represented. But alongside them are scores of individuals who successfully brought about the vast majority of what rights and freedoms we as a country have secured, however precarious these rights may be. In journeying across this history and these landscapes, my wish with the film would be that the viewer find seeds of hope and inspiration along the way. If it also encourages folks, as I’ve been told it has, to get more intimately acquainted with their history, especially arenas of history that have been consciously suppressed by concentrated power, I’m pleased. As Howard Zinn advocated:  “What most of us must be involved in–whether we teach or write, make films, write films, direct films, play music, act, whatever we do–has to not only make people feel good and inspired and at one with other people around them, but also has to educate a new generation to do this very modest thing: change the world.”

Desistfilm: The images of sky and trees moving in the wind in Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind remind me a little bit about the pantheistic images of a Terrence Malick. Do you think there’s a presence in nature that allows us to think of a higher ground? How does this relate to your political views or intentions? Is the wind a metaphor for political agitation?

John Gianvito: As in the great Leonard Cohen song, “The Partisan”, with its lines, “The wind, the wind is blowing, through the graves the wind is blowing, freedom soon will come,” the wind in Profit Motive was intended to speak to the stirring energy of all those who fought, bled, and died in the service of the struggle to create a more just and egalitarian world. It is both metaphor and at the same time more simply, though perhaps more complexly, certainly more tangibly, just the wind. My spiritual beliefs as well as my political ones are rooted in the natural world. A big part of what I believe ails modern society is that we perceive nature, if we perceive it all, as a luxury item. If one has the resources and the time, it is considered a nice thing to get away for a weekend to the countryside or the beach or wherever.  I believe we were all intended to have a daily, direct, active relationship with the natural world and that the absence of such communion contributes profoundly to the sickening of the spirit, enabling all measure of consequent behaviors to follow.  I grew up in New York City where scarcely a single star can be seen in the night sky. I had however the privilege of parents who possessed both the means and the inclination to take me and my siblings each summer for a few weeks into the Rocky Mountains where each night one could not help but feel utterly awestruck and humbled by the extraordinary spectacle of the galaxy overhead. So yes, I think living closer to the land, and to the elements, carries at least the potential to foster kindness.

Vapor Trail (Clark) (2010)

Desistfilm: Both Vapor Trail and Wake follow on the environmental, psychological and political consequences of interventionist politics. Are there other places you want to explore that are currently suffering the same or worst results of this particular policy of the United States?  

John Gianvito: Vapor Trail (Clark) and Wake (Subic) form two halves of a diptych that I have labeled, For Example, the Philippines. ‘For Example’, because the human, environmental, societal horrors displayed in these works can be found all over the world. The story of what the U.S. and its Filipino collaborators have done to the people and the landscape of that country has been and continues to be replicated in so many places, both inside and outside the U.S..  One could tell the story, and some have, of what has been done in Vieques, in Okinawa, in Guam (witness the continuing health impacts on the indigenous Chamoru people), of the long and ugly history of U.S. interventions throughout South America, of the annexation of Hawaii (a film should be made about Robert Wilcox, whose grave site I’d wished to include in Profit Motive)… in fact, one need only focus on life today inside the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to truly comprehend the profound impact of the U.S.’s relationship to the “other”.  That said, obviously the U.S. possesses no copyright on imperialist conquest.  But, as it is militarily still the most powerful geopolitical player on the world stage by far, and as I reside within it, it is where I have focused my ire. Critically however, the story of Vapor Trail and Wake is not just the tragedy of the lingering consequences of colonial intervention and unchecked militarism, but also a lesson on the relationship of such actions to the recording and teaching of history. As such, my hope is that the films speak to related struggles elsewhere.

Desistfilm: Can you talk about a little bit about your relation with Lav Diaz in the Phillipines? In Wake: Subic there’s a song by Lav.

John Gianvito: Lav and I have been good friends for a number of years and, like so many, I regard him as one of the greatest artists working in film today, certainly our greatest tragedian. Early in the making of Vapor Trail, filmmaker Khavn De La Cruz gave me a CD he’d produced of music by Lav that I listened to many times. Even without understanding most of the Tagalog I was moved by the melodies and delivery of the lyrics. I had already had the idea of incorporating the old Italian partisan song, “Bella Ciao”, into Vapor Trail and of returning to the song, but in Tagalog, in Wake. I approached Lav with the idea and played for him this particularly distinctive rendition of the song by Giovanna Marini and Francesco De Gregori, and Lav kindly agreed to translate and try his hand at a Tagalog version. Many months later, through the help of our mutual friend, the film critic Alexis Tioseco, arrangements were made for Lav to record the song in a studio in Manila. When Alexis forwarded to me the audio files, there was in addition to multiple takes of “Bella Ciao”, an additional song that Lav had written. Lav said that it was a gift that I was free to use or not as I saw fit. I still remember when my assistant Eric and I first listened to that recording and how deeply affected we were. I ended up placing the song, “Anak ng Bayan” (Nation’s Child), over the closing credits of Vapor Trail, and I think Lav’s poetic words evoke so much of the spirit of the piece as a whole. There is a terrible coda to this story which is that two weeks or so after Alexis wrote me and sent along the music, he and his partner, Nika Bohinc, who was also a friend of mine, were both brutally murdered. Their story became well known and I believe continues to touch the lives of many people in the Philippines and around the world. Lav told me once that there exists some video footage of Alexis and Nika sleeping behind Lav during the late-night recording sessions of these songs but I’m not sure either of us could bear the heartache of viewing that.

Desistfilm: How have you achieved to measure the effect of your films? Meaning: they are shown in festivals, showcases, with a determined audience. But, has there been a process that allows new decisions, in front of political governments? What has happened in Phillipines, for example, after your works there? How do you see this relation of political film and what it should produce in the spectators and policy makers?

John Gianvito: Many questions, important ones, if not so easy to answer. A few years ago I was invited to deliver a lecture that in time evolved into an article entitled, “Bringing Consciousness to Conscience”, in which I sought to examine the reasons for, and efficacy of, making political films. As you can imagine, to measure the impact of any film, book, poem, painting…is fraught with all sorts of difficulty, regardless of whether or not they have a political agenda. An experience with a film can operate on you in subterranean ways, can operate over time, can play a role in the connective tissue of events that may eventually serve as a catalyst toward action. In writing in defense of politically engaged cinema (broadly defined), I explored the topic through three lenses: “Proof Positive” in which I chronicle numerous examples of films that singularly made concrete difference, changed laws, freed people from prison, spurred the launch of organizations, etc. In “Proof Negative”, I argue that if films had no real power, why have so many films been suppressed, destroyed, so many filmmakers imprisoned, beaten, and even killed for their efforts to bring light to injustices worldwide. Lastly, with “In the Absence of Proof”, I address the situation for the majority of politically-engaged filmmakers, for filmmakers like myself, for whom it can be much harder to demonstrate having contributed to the making of significant social change.  Such a situation raises a host of hard questions which can’t be so simply or glibly addressed. I have often questioned whether the making of films is the best use of my time and energy in this life if I am indeed truly committed to having an impact on the many issues that concern me, although to be fair, making films is but one of the ways I acquit myself as an engaged citizen. Regarding the Philippine films, as I learn about the premature death of more and more of the individuals who shared with me their struggles in the years that I was shooting that film, I have often found myself feeling utterly disconsolate. While I have privately used what income the films generate as well as other resources to try to aid the lives of many of those I encountered, the reality that it remains but a drop in the bucket can overwhelm. And yet I try to keep mindful that the real difficulties suffered by real people daily on this planet (to say nothing of the plight of all life around us) ought to overwhelm, ought to rattle us, ought to be in front of us at all times.  Perspective comes from surveying all angles. For those who thirst, such drops still matter. Knowing that one’s actions have made even a few individual’s lives better should be indication enough that one has not wasted one’s time. Is cinema really a numbers game?

Wake (Subic) (2015)

While Vapor Trail (Clark) and Wake (Subic) have screened in many parts of the world, it has been a particularly difficult challenge to get the works shown in the Philippines. There are virtually no art/repertory cinemas and as many of today’s Filipino New Wave directors can verify, their works screen more frequently outside of the country than within. This is largely why I placed Vapor Trail on Youtube. Now with the election of Duterte, a government long known for corruption and dysfunction, has reached a new nadir. I await with anticipation the first brave films that confront the situation head-on. Curiously, had my films been widely shown in the Philippines I don’t know that this would have done much to alter the current circumstances. In fact, I could imagine Duterte praising them as, fundamentally, they are scathing critiques of U.S. intervention in the Philippines, much of the history of which Duterte seems familiar. It was interesting to see him, during last Fall’s East Asian Summit in Indonesia, raise the issue of U.S. “pacification” campaign during the Philippine-American War and hold up images of the Moro Massacre, and, just two weeks ago, Duterte called for the U.S. to return the Balangiga church bells seized by the U.S. in 1901 following an uprising on the island of Samar that resulted in the death of some 50 American soldiers. Ironically of course, Duterte has openly declared that he “doesn’t give a damn about human rights”, sanctioned the murder of over 10,000 “drug addicts”, jailed his political opponents, declared martial law in Mindanao, and supported a vicious so-called “counter-insurgency” campaign led by U.S. equipped and trained forces. Despite this he continues to enjoy sizable public support (even from filmmakers like Brillante Mendoza!) and it’s clear that progressive media of all kinds is desperately needed, borrowing a phrase of Edouard de Laurot, to bring “consciousness to conscience”, to throw light on the darkness currently engulfing the nation.

Desistfilm: “Every film is political” is a problematic premise nowadays, since there is an existing cinema with clear convictions and motivations. Let’s talk about Nolan’s Dunkirk, for example, a film which could be read as a political film on war, pacifism or historical reconstruction, however, its function is not to transform common senses, neither is it to subvert an order or to propose an exit to an urgent problem that needs to have some visibility. How do you think we could talk today about a political cinema?

John Gianvito: While I have not seen Dunkirk, I have read some reviews and Nolan’s remark about how he didn’t want to get “bogged down in the politics of the situation.” I was reminded of when Kathryn Bigelow repeatedly attempted to insist that both The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty were apolitical films, that she was simply trying to pay homage to the everyday heroism of soldiers in battle. But nothing takes place in a vacuum, and the conscious or unconscious omission of political context is itself a political act for which there are consequences. I sometimes describe such films as empty-calorie cinema, devoid of any nutritional enrichment, but it’s worse.  I think the steady diet of such films can poison. The kind of cinema that I value these days are the films that jolt us out of our benumbed routines and complacency, that reawaken us to our responsibility to the world around us and provide us with the intellectual and practical resources to carry the struggle forward — films that one can take home and use. Defining usefulness is no doubt a matter of subjectivity but I remain very much in agreement with Nicole Brenez’ astute observation that, “The fact that one can think with certain films, and not simply about them, is the irrefutable sign of their value.”

Desistfilm: What are your impressions on this whole political problematic environment, headed by Trump, that USA is living right now?  

John Gianvito: Where to begin? On rare optimistic days I allow myself to hope that Trump’s utter debasing of any sort of ethical principles, of civility, of rationality, of historicity, could prove to be the spur to finally launch the revolution I’ve long dreamed about. It was interesting to observe that many of those who ended up voting for Trump indicated that their second choice was self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders. The groundswell of those desirous of radical change in the status quo is a reality I think will only grow in strength. With current statistics indicating that 78% of working individuals in the U.S. continue to live paycheck to paycheck, unless and until the gulf between the haves and have nots is seriously confronted one can expect more tumult ahead.  It is tragic that so many could be deceived into thinking that someone like Trump could solve their problems, when there is no evidence of his ever having shown concern for those in need. By aggressively exploiting the anger of the working and middle classes, Trump, like all crafty politicians or snake oil salesmen, told folks what they wanted to hear—this, despite his own lengthy track record of failing to support increases in the minimum wage, failing to pay creditors, farming his manufacturing overseas, and, in recent years, of union-busting. Throw in the backing of the religious right, and pervasive sexism against any woman gaining power, and a recipe for victory emerges.  The fact that financial markets continue to flourish simply underscores that the so-called ‘health of the economy’ and the health of the nation are wholly separate matters.

The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (2001)

As has been said by many, the issue is not just Trump and his inner circle of cronies, but all those who still, seven months into this trainwreck, continue to be enablers of this administration, either through their overt support or their failure to assertively condemn what’s been happening. That Trump remains as popular as he is with his base sadly reveals a degree of moral vacuity, racism, and ignorance that needs to be called out for what it is. That industry elites and politicians, on both sides of the political aisle, remain largely silent about the extremist policies being implemented or proposed daily demonstrates clear complicity. Mussolini himself acknowledged that, “Fascism should be more properly called corporatism, since it is the merger of state and corporate power,” — though of course this incestuous relationship long precedes Trump.

Many factors made Trump possible but the inability of the Democratic Party to deliver on its rhetoric and promises is a key one. That progressives, despite decades of evidence to the contrary, still believe that Democrats are the party of the working people, of human and environmental rights, is evidence of the success of the ruling elite to create the illusion of choice. As Noam Chomsky has long pointed out, in the U.S. the two-party system, with small variations, is effectively a single party – the business party. Until we collectively muster the strength to break free of the straight-jacket of the two parties, meaningful change, at least within the system, will remain out of reach.

This week, U.K.-based monitoring group AIRWARS, released data revealing that more civilians have been killed through collateral damage in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere during the first 7 months of the Trump regime than during the previous three years of the Obama administration, itself more bloodthirsty than under George W. Bush.  Meanwhile, we experience more and more severe weather patterns, while the Trump administration has moved aggressively to overturn Obama-era environmental protections, withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accords, with Trump himself declaring climate-change to be a “hoax”.  Need I say more? And as we see more nations around the globe gravitating toward right-wing dictatorial leaders, one of the consequences is the encouraging of an increased turn inward, toward pure self-interest given the model at the helm. Still, lest one forget, the nationwide Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration was the largest mass protest in U.S. history. Lest one forget, within three weeks of the very first Occupy Movement protest in New York City in 2011, additional protests had taken place in over 951 cities across 82 countries including over 600 communities in the U.S.. Lest we forget, these words of abolitionist Frederick Douglass that “The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” What is my impression of the environment in the U.S. at present?  The time is ripe for insurrection.

Desistfilm: Which do you think are today’s most militant, powerful, confrontational political cinema? 

John Gianvito: I wish that there was a wealth of names that sprang to mind, though certainly a great deal of work escapes my notice. While I am personally warmed by the more fiery side of the spectrum, I don’t subscribe to any one cinematic strategy and I can draw sustenance from a wide array of engaged practice. Among contemporaries, a few names that spring to mind at the moment include Amar Kanwar, Susana de Sousa Dias, Rakesh Sharma, Sylvain George, Jony Perel, Minda Martin, Travis Wilkerson…among the older guard, I greatly admire the work of Patricio Guzman, Alanis Obomsawin, Rithy Panh, Ken Loach, Tran Van Thuy, Avi Mograbi, Jean-Marie Straub, Lav Diaz of course, Peter Watkins, Peter Nestler…while I haven’t seen his latest works, I think not enough respect is being shown to the radical achievements of Jorge Sanjines…I also happen to think, while it seems to have been one of his least commercially successful works, that Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next had utilitarian value in getting socialist ideas before a general audience….I have been intrigued by what I have seen and read about the Karrabing Film Collective…among recent releases I found Sonia Kennebeck’s National Bird, and Martirio by Vincent Carelli, Ernesto de Carvalho, and Tatiana Almeida powerful and enlightening experiences… But one needn’t just look at what’s currently being made for insight into these times. Earlier this summer, I finally caught up with Jean Renoir’s 1943 This Land is Mine. I thought to myself if there was ever a film to summon the courage needed to stand up to the despotic forces in power, here’s the film we need. Again the lesson of Zinn – that we should always actively, if selectively, be looking to the past to help illuminate and propel the struggles before us.

Her Socialist Smile (2020)

PART II (2021)

Desistfilm: John, can we talk about the process of how you came about the story of Helen Keller and her role as a socialist activist? How was the process of coming up with this new project?

John Gianvito: Of all my films, this project had by far the longest gestation. The idea of exploring this lesser known dimension of Keller’s life goes back 21 years ago when I first came upon mention of it in some writing by radical historian Howard Zinn. This was prior to my making Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind, a direct homage to Zinn’s work. As I began the process of locating and reading through a number of Helen Keller’s socialist writings, I was struck not only by the force and eloquence of the writing but by how germane her words still felt so many years later. I connected on a very personal level with her ideas and felt the desire to bring them back into wider circulation. For about a year, I explored the possibility of this as subject for a short film. Unfortunately, despite various efforts I could locate virtually no archival film, photographs, or audio pertaining to Keller’s political life. This was especially puzzling given that she had become, from an early age, one of the most famous women in the world. While I have various speculations on why such documentation cannot be found, some of which is revealed in the film itself, in any case at that juncture I felt that it wasn’t going to be possible to make a film without such materials.  Then, a few years ago, after finishing another film, this idea began to resurface. While the original challenges remained, I now felt prepared to creatively confront them. It also seemed to me, one hundred years later, and in the era of Trump, that Helen Keller’s words were even more resonant, and more needed, than ever. Every time I heard a politician disparaging the notion of socialism as though it was something manifestly, recognizably, evil, it was pissing me off!  And being pissed off always provides good fuel for filmmaking.

Desistfilm: Why was it important to you to keep Keller’s texts on screen and not using a different method of montage with voice over? The film is text heavy, but it strikes a good balance for reflection on her words, which is pivotal to the understanding of her own issues with speech and hearing, and also of being dismissed, or ignored, in a patriarchal system.

John Gianvito: While she did give public addresses, it was through writing that Helen Keller principally communicated with the world around her.  I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of someone pretending to be Helen Keller, and had I opted to just have the text spoken in voice-over that raised the question of what would be on screen. As my central focus was upon Keller’s political ideas and not in making a biographical documentary, the question was how to foreground those ideas and how to do so in such a way that they might truly be ingested and considered.  While it might seem a radical idea that people should have to read while watching a film, if the text is engaging I have no problem with it.  I think it is also fair to say, as some have suggested, that the film is as much about the words themselves as about the ideas.

Desistfilm: Another thing that happens in the film is you showing the voice over narrator in screen, as an opener and closer of it. Why is it important as well to you as a filmmaker to open up part of the process of the film, to include those images and character to the audience?

John Gianvito: Having employed voice-over fairly extensively in my last few films, it made me ever more sensitive to the long-standing documentary issue of the disembodied narrator, often called ‘voice of God’ narration — omniscient, invisible… While the poet Carolyn Forché didn’t know ahead of time that I would be putting cameras in the recording booth while she was narrating, I also didn’t know for sure whether or not I would actually use any of the footage. It was only in the editing room that I concluded that, since the written texts themselves could possibly come across as somehow disembodied, personalizing the presence of the narrator seemed like it might be a welcome and humanizing element.

Desistfilm: In films like “Profit Motive and Whispering Wind”, you are actively trying to deconstruct or reformulate the documentary form. You manage to do this again, with a film which includes archival footage, quotes from the author, shots of an empty theater, etc. Why is it crucial to work around the form of documentary in order to achieve its political objectives?

John Gianvito: The belief that radical ideas demand radical form is hardly new.  That said however, the honest fact is that the films aren’t really born out of such convictions. They evolve from slow, deliberative thought and exploration, through which, ineluctably, is carried my DNA.  The form has less to do with any theory than my own individual, idiosyncratic way of responding to that which interests me.  Imagination is by nature anarchic. In the creative wrestling that all artists engage in, I simply try to please myself. I try to make the film I myself would like to watch since no else has made it. To the extent I come near to that ambition rests the only hope that the film may prove useful to others.

Desistfilm: It is a particular sad symptom that Keller’s words sound/ring so present, so current, today. How do you see the progress of worker’s rights and social activism today, compared to the times of this remarkable woman?

I suppose it depends where one is looking. On many fronts it’s clear that things are worse than ever. Certainly organized labor here has yet to recover from the many body blows it suffered over the past century.  Just last week we saw the disheartening failure of an Amazon warehouse to successfully vote to unionize in Keller’s home state of Alabama, a move that would have brought about the first union inside Amazon.  Nationwide, women still earn less than men, currently 82 cents for every dollar a man makes, and the gap is even wider for women of color. In some areas there’s been progress. For instance, I wouldn’t myself have envisioned during my own lifetime that gay rights would have achieved such strides, including marriage rights here in the U.S. and now in many other nations as well. Disability politics has also made marked progress since Keller’s time, including the passage of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. Most notably perhaps has been the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, a movement which has seen the largest street protests in US history and this during a time of global pandemic.  That said, in terms of the overall rise in autocratic rule, in extremes of income inequality, increased environmental peril,  global militarization, and on and on, things are indeed seriously grim, and resistance as urgently needed as ever. It is precisely for this reason that Helen Keller’s lucid and determined calling out for the need for organized labor, for female solidarity, for demilitarization, for collective, radical, anti-fascist resistance in its multitude of forms, — for revolution itself – moved me to want to find a way that her fighting spirit might continue to inspire new generations.

Her Socialist Smile (2020)

Desistfilm: The relation Keller had with the tactile, with flowers, alongside her endless empathy and radical support of human causes speak volumes of her humanity, of an integral part of herself. How was the experience of discovering these connections like?    

John Gianvito: There’s no question but that it deepened the feeling of kinship. It was in reading Keller’s autobiographical writings that I discovered the extent to which she valued her time alone in nature, taking regular walks in the woods, lying down for hours inside her garden, taking horseback rides, canoeing in nearby lakes, experiences which she describes with remarkable vividness. While it’s only partially verbalized in my film, Helen Keller’s political life was in many respects intertwined with her spiritual life and religious beliefs. Keller was a life-long Christian and as a young woman was drawn to the writings of Emmanuel Swedenborg who believed that God’s essence permeates all creation. Nature was for Keller, in many respects, a portal for communion with God. While arguably not wholly dissimilar, I lean toward a more pantheistic view of things.  I concur with Edward Abbey who insisted that either everything is divine or nothing. I am increasingly mindful of our collective tendency toward anthropocentrism, always focused on humans as being the center of the universe. Perhaps nowhere is this more pronounced than in cinema itself although, thankfully, exceptions still exist.

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