At 4’ 7”, she’s surprisingly hard to miss. Dr. Ruth Westheimer, or Dr. Ruth as she’s more commonly known, is a powerhouse in a petite frame. With her unabashed talk of sex, her short stature, and thick German accent, she’s become a television and radio icon. It’s no wonder she now has her own documentary, one that explores her life before stardom, and mirrors many issues still relevant today.
Known for her friendly grandma personality while on television, the film chooses to explore what led her to such a career, mainly that she is a Holocaust survivor, the only member of her family to survive, and even ended up as a sniper in the Israeli army for a while. The film uses animation to retell the 55 years or so of Ruth’s life before she became famous, emphasizing that she wasn’t always the charming grandma on TV. As a result, the documentary unravels a story of tragedy and perseverance that few people know, since Ruth is incredibly private.
As the filmmakers follow present-day Ruth around, they use archival footage and interviews with family, friends and former colleagues to tell her story. Bizarrely, they choose to use voiceover actors in flashbacks with American accents, when Ruth’s accent is a strong part of her identity in the states. Still, it’s clear that the filmmakers are touting Ruth as an immigrant story, without leaning too hard into the contentious immigration issues of today. Ruth is firmly apolitical and doesn’t consider herself a feminist, though she supports Planned Parenthood and a woman’s right to abortion. Her experience in the Holocaust makes her naturally reject ideas that label groups of people as “other”. The documentary makes a point of highlighting that she advocated for gay rights and against the stigmatization of AIDS on her show, well before it was the national norm.
The only downside to this otherwise entertaining documentary is that it feels very controlled and influenced by the sex therapist herself. Like many people that went through the Holocaust, she doesn’t enjoy discussing her feelings on the matter, instead choosing to be forcefully optimistic whenever she can. Rather than an honest and transparent look at our subject, Ask Dr. Ruth seems to only include what she wants to be included. While that’s not necessarily a detraction, it just means that you’re aware that the subject has shaped the narrative.
Even so, it’s hard not to enjoy Ask Dr. Ruth. Her small stature, thick accent, and easy laugh exude charm in buckets, and her story makes clear that she’s had her fair share of hurdles, giving her a strength that’s clear to see through the laughter.