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A Hero Of Our Times: An interview with the directors of Ruth Bader-Ginsburg documentary RBG


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Exploring the life of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as never before, Dogwoof’s latest documentary, RBG, shows her role not only in advocating for women’s equality but also as a popular culture icon, opera lover, wife and mother.

Image credit: Dogwoof

The life of this astonishing figure is expressed through film in detail for the first time. I was lucky enough to discuss the project with the directors of this powerful documentary, the brilliant Betsy West and Julia Cohen. Here are a few moments from our conversation.

"We want people to come away with more knowledge on Justice Ginsburg herself and we also want people to be motivated by her story," says Betsy West as we open our conversation on RBG. Immediately it is evident that both West and Cohen hold a deep respect for the Notorious RBG (as she is known in pop culture) and for how she continues to ‘change the world for American women’.

Our initial discussion was on how exactly it was that this documentary came into being and what the inspiration behind it was, the initial initiative for this project being her rising prominence in the public eye.

"As she became a public icon through growing awareness of the dissents she has written, we saw this as a window into beginning the documentary," says Julia Cohen.

But filming and research was a slow process initially, for many reasons: "Never before has a documentary been produced on a supreme court Justice," according to Cohen. "The initial challenge was getting access to Justice Ginsburg. It took several attempts to get her permission to start following and interviewing her."

The documentary itself is presented in several mediums throughout, the most prominent being a collection of interviews with Justice Ginsburg herself along with those who have been a part of her journey.

The directing duo say that they didn’t interview many experts as part of this, largely because they wanted to interview those who played a role in bringing together both the personal and professional elements of Ginsburg’s story.

"It was difficult to condense down who we wanted to speak to and what to include," says Cohen. "We wanted to pick cases we thought were fascinating and those who we thought could bring those stories to life."

Featuring everyone from Gloria Steinem to Justice Ginsburg’s own grandchildren, these interviews are designed to weave together to create a ‘balance between the serious with her compelling personal story.’

A particularly poignant element of her biography is that of her relationship with her husband, Martin ‘Marty’ Ginsburg. "There wasn’t a person who didn’t mention Marty Ginsburg," says West. "He made it possible for her to accomplish what she did. He became her advocate."

A graduate of Harvard Law School and later professor of law, Marty encouraged Justice Ginsburg to pursue her career and worked in partnership with her to assist in her continued progress. "She lit up whenever she spoke about him," says Cohen, on RBG’s response to talking about her late husband. This relationship and the importance of this to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as both a person as well as a Supreme Court Justice was central to the documentary, alongside her many professional successes in the progress of US legislation.

"Her life is fascinating and has so many facets," says West. "She’s small and soft spoken but she has a power to her."

It is the admiration of both West and Cohen that shines through this complex narrative of one of the most important women in the ongoing pursuit of gender equality. She is a "real hero for our times", according to Cohen, "especially in that she writes to be understood, not just in legal jargon."

Here there is a reference to a particular moment in which Justice Ginsburg was discussing the rights of African Americans being protected by legislation, opposed to this being overlooked by the Voting Rights Act (2013). RBG stated that it "is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet" to leave such an important element of legislation overlooked. This aphorism is a prominent example of the accessibility Ginsburg creates around the law, her desire being not only to create progress but to encourage others to join an open conversation that is very much about their rights.

"We finished making the documentary during the fall of Weinstein and rising of Me Too movement, in an environment of increasing disgust with harassment and rape," says West. "This atmosphere definitely informs the current response around this feminist icon."

This comment especially captures the importance of documentaries such as RBG in informing and enabling a public conscious to raise ongoing awareness of gender inequality, and the progress that has been made so far. The continuing of both female and male support for gender equality that stems from such public awareness has become a guiding force in the reception of the documentary as it's released across the globe. The directors agree that "It was an honour to produce this film" and that it was "both exciting and intimidating."

Upon sharing that a favourite moment of mine was Justice Ginsburg performing at the opera, they told me that on watching the moment on film she cried at the aria. "Music is a release for her," says West, with the Supreme Justice having an immense appreciation for opera and the power of the human voice. West also says that "When she [Justice Ginsburg] performed, she really performed. She applies herself fully into everything she does."

Amongst West and Cohens' favourite moments were Justice Ginsburg’s first argument, and her response to the 2017 SNL clip of Kate McKinnon playing her. Of the latter the two shared that it was a ‘great moment’ in which Justice Ginsburg had a ‘genuine belly laugh’ in response to the SNL sketch - something they didn’t know how she’d respond to.

Of the former, Cohen says it was "the strength with which she stands up" for what she has to say in this most important of moments that struck her the most. This essence of "she applies herself fully to everything she does" was the closing feel of our conversation, a thought which summarises perfectly the central motif of RBG.

This is a documentary about a woman who has acted as an ambassador for women not only in the US but everywhere in our world, and who in applying herself fully to this mission has achieved results that surpassed the expectations of what anyone could have foreseen. I think West and Cohen will be unanimous in agreeing with me when I say we cannot wait to see what the Notorious RBG does next.

RGB is out now. 

Lead image: Dogwoof

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