'Ask Dr. Ruth' Condemns Child Separation at Tribeca Premiere

Dr. Ruth and Ryan White-Getty-H 2019
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

At an interview on Saturday night, the famous sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer said the involvement of director Ryan White convinced her to revisit her story on film.

Dr. Ruth Westheimer has made her nearly four-decade-long career embodying an atypical older woman in the public sphere — that is, one who gives unflinching sexual advice. She has connected with multiple generations through her loving guidance, and the impact of her wisdom was evident at the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of her documentary Ask Dr. Ruth on Saturday night, which played to an audience that included many octogenarians as well as young gay couples who have experience with her work.

The documentary isn’t the first telling of her tale. Back in 2013, Westheimer's harrowing life story of fleeing Nazis and becoming the only surviving member of her family during the Holocaust, then joining the Haganah in Jerusalem as a scout and sniper and ultimately moving to New York City, was told in the play Becoming Dr. Ruth. But Ask Dr. Ruth, directed by Ryan White, is the first major feature film to tell her story in her own words.

Initially, Westheimer had no interest in making a documentary. During a post-screening interview with Annette Insdorf, accompanied by White, the sex therapist noted that her story had already been told in the play and in the short 1997 documentary Dr. Ruth Westheimer: Speaking of Sex, part of a Biography channel docuseries. “I said, 'Enough already!'” recalled Dr. Ruth.

She quickly changed her mind. After Ask Dr. Ruth’s producer Rafael Marmor reached out to her, she decided to watch some of his other projects and was sold as soon as she saw a film he produced, No Place on Earth, about a group of Ukrainian Jews who spent over a year hiding from Nazis during World War II. “When I hear that sentence, ‘No place on Earth,’ from that history of mine, you could know that this is my story,” she said.

Marmor then told her he wanted White as director, who is best known for directing the Netflix docuseries The Keepers. “I said, Ryan owes me seven hours of my life because the last series that I watched is called The Keepers…. And I couldn't stop watching it because it was like a cliffhanger! So I said, ‘Let’s have dinner,’” she said.

White, who was born in 1981 at the height of Westheimer’s career, was too young at the time to understand the magnitude of her influence on pop culture and sexual education, but upon meeting with her, he understood why he had to make the film. “I walked in the restaurant and she jumped out of her chair and ran up. I knew that this woman had a lot of energy and would be interesting to follow," he recalled. “And then she started telling me all these stories from her backstory, which were so harrowing, and it was especially the little things at that dinner that really made me want to make the film.”

One of the most striking aspects of the film is that it interweaves animation with the footage, going back to the darkest moments in Westheimer’s life, accompanied with a voiceover of her childhood diary entries that delve into the fear of leaving behind her family to find refuge in Switzerland on her own.

“I want to say something first. I was very worried about animation; I thought, they're going to make me look like Pinocchio, or Mickey Mouse, or Daisy,” joked Westheimer from the Spring Studios stage. But White ultimately won her approval. “If you remember, there is the scene at the front with our farewell at the railroad station platform. It wasn't just my mother and my grandmother, but what they did brilliantly is show the loneliness. The loneliness of the mother and grandmother saying goodbye to me. If they had shown any more pain, it would have been lost,” she added.

“We actually began editing the film using archival footage from the Holocaust and World War II and Frankfurt,” explained White. “And it didn't feel fair to her childhood. It didn't match the intimacy of Dr. Ruth in the '80s and '90s, where we had so much archival of her, and then obviously Dr. Ruth is full of life at 88 and 89 years old in the film.” He also noted the importance of using the diary entries in those animated scenes, to avoid having to ask her to face painful memories of her childhood.

One revelation that Dr. Ruth made during her chat with Insdorf was that she has changed her stance on not publicly speaking about her political opinions. “What is so important to me these days is when you hear in the movie that I don't do politics, I changed my mind right now, because what I do know [is] that for your mother and your grandma, what I talk about is how upset I am when I see children being separated from their family, because that's my story,” she said, met with roaring applause.

Before taking questions from audience members, Westheimer made a plea: “I'm going to say one more thing. Everybody listen! I'm not supposed to say that. Everybody! Annette, you don't hear it, okay? If you know anybody who votes for the Academy Awards, I promise good sex!”