Douglas Edwards Experimental Film Award

Her Socialist Smile
Directed by John Gianvito

Who was Helen Keller? Was she the legendary, inspirational hero who surmounted her condition as a blind woman and spurred the first movement to recognize the rights and needs of people with disabilities? Of course she was. But did we know that she was much more? That she was one of America’s most vocal, most radical voices for socialism in the early decades of the 20th century? That this part of Keller’s life — 15 years from 1909 to 1924 — was effectively erased from the public record, or made obscure by historians? 

John Gianvito’s Her Socialist Smile uncovers this record, reconstructs it and more — revivifies it, injecting a seemingly dead and destroyed corner of America’s past with stirring vitality. The film (it was shot on 16mm) is both a sequel to and an extension of Gianvito’s extraordinary 2007 film, Profit motive and the whispering wind, a montage of the gravestones and historical markers of past figures and events in U.S. history engaged in working-class opposition to the capitalist power structure. These physical symbols were often hard to find and in disrepair, and that was the point: There, as with the amazing story of Keller, key chapters in the nation’s struggle over economic and social justice have been deliberately hidden from view.

Since Keller’s powerful anti-capitalist speeches have no audio archive, Gianvito presents their texts on screen to be read, while crafting a beautiful montage of archival footage, images of the garden life on the grounds of Keller’s Massachusetts home and the sonorous voiceover by poet Carolyn Forché. The result is the most searing and poetic film essay of recent years. 

— Robert Koehler