Session 6: John Gianvito, Her Socialist Smile

Her Socialist Smile, John Gianvito, USA, 2020, digital, 93 minutes, English

Watch the film: Her Socialist Smile can be viewed anytime between 25 March and 30 March via the Essay Film Festival online screening room. LINK HERE.

Live event: join us for a live discussion with filmmaker John Gianvito, who will be in conversation with poet, teacher and activist Carolyn Forché (who provides the voiceover narration to the film), and writer and curator, Gareth Evans. This event will be chaired by Michael Temple. 29 March 2021, 20.00 – 21.30.

Access the event at 20.00 here:

“There is a pertinence and connection between [Helen’s politics and] our current historical moment (even one hundred years later). She has a lot of things to say to us. […] She had belief in the power of the young to move us a few steps closer to the kind of world we’d like to live in. So, I hope this film speaks to new generations of activists and gives them some nutrition for the good fight.”(John Gianvito)

Her Socialist Smile is the result of a long-held wish by John Gianvito to pay a tribute to lesser-known aspects of Helen Keller’s life story, to her life-long engagement with socialist and progressive ideas and practice, as well as to her anti-capitalist activism. The film is a biography of Keller’s political thinking and imagination, mainly told through her own writing. It traces the evolution of her ideas stemming from her early years struggling for the rights of people with disability, for which she is mostly recognised, to her early involvement with the American Socialist Party, and her long commitment to causes such as pacifism, labour rights, women’s suffrage and support for birth control, among other issues. The film uses a wide array of documents, photographs, rare recordings, voiceover narration, onscreen transcriptions of Keller’s texts, many taken from her public lectures. Her Socialist Smile is Gianvito’s powerful meditation on the overlooked legacies of progressive ideas in the USA and on the protracted struggles for a more egalitarian society. The film’s rhythm is punctuated by quiet images of nature, of ice, trees and animals. These images situate the film and its ideas in the natural world around us, expanding the relevance of Keller’s thinking beyond its time and context, and advocating for greater political solidarity.


John Gianvito is a director, teacher, and curator, based in Boston, Massachusetts. His films include the dramatic features The Flower of Pain (1983), The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (2001) and the documentary Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (2007). Additional works include the collective film Far from Afghanistan (2012), and the nine-hour diptych For Example, the Philippines, comprising the films Vapor Trail (Clark) (2010) and Wake (Subic) (2015). 

Carolyn Forché is one of America’s most important contemporary poets – renowned as a ‘poet of witness’ – as well as an indefatigable human rights activist. She is the author of several volumes of poetry, and also the editor of the anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (1993). She has also published What You Have Heard Is True (2019), a memoir telling the history of her own awakening as a poet and human rights activist. 

Gareth Evans is a writer, curator, presenter and producer. He is Film Curator at Whitechapel Gallery, London. He has curated numerous film and event seasons across the UK, including at the Barbican, ICA, Institut Français, Arnolfini and Watershed. He previously worked on the film pages of Time Out and edited the film magazine Vertigo.


Hyperallergic: Did you know Helen Keller was a Socialist?

LA Review of Books: “Pay Attention: On Carolyn Fourché’s ‘What You Have Heard is True'” by Helen Mackreath

Cinemascope: Her Socialist Smile reviewed by Jordan Cronk