Ruth Gruber, the subject of a wonderfully economical and crisp documentary, "Ahead of Time," is a magnificent one-of-a-kind figure in 20th-century Jewish history. Gruber is the product of, she recounts with a grin, "a shtetl called Brooklyn. … Everybody there was Jewish." She was a prodigy who entered New York University at 15 and earned a doctorate from the University of Cologne at 20. But the attractions of the academy couldn’t compete with the turmoil of worldwide economic depression, the New Deal at home and the rise of Fascism in Europe. Her father had urged her, "You have to have a career."
So she wrote. And wrote. And still writes.
She’s the perfect subject for a documentary. Happily, producer Zeva Oelbaum found the perfect director in Bob Richman.
Richman, 59, has been the cinematographer on some of the most important documentary films of the past 20 years, including "My Architect," "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster" and "An Inconvenient Truth." Like Gruber, h Je is a native of Brooklyn, Jewish and someone whose career sort of fell into place.
Richman dreamed of being a filmmaker, but knew his family wouldn’t stand for his choosing film school, so he went to college as a psychology major. After a year of travel and time in the family business, he decided to take a blind leap, going to the offices of the documentary-making Maysles brothers, where a friend of a friend worked.
"By chance, the guy I knew was off for four days and they asked me to fill in," he recalls. "Albert [Maysles] took a liking to me, and I stayed for quite a few years. I learned my craft with them."
It was there that he became close friends with Bruce Sinofsky who, with his frequent directing partner Joel Berlinger, would hire Richman to shoot several of their films including the Metallica movie and "Paradise Lost: The Robin Hood Hills Child Murders," which garnered the cinematographer an Emmy nomination.
His involvement in "Ahead of Time" had as deliciously offhand a beginning.
"I was coming out of a dry cleaners in Montclair, N.J., where I live, and I ran into Zeva," he says. Oelbaum was working on a film about Ruth Gruber and suggested to Richman that he might be interested in directing it.
"I didn’t even know who she was," he admits today.
He found out quickly enough.
"Our first meeting was wonderful," Richman says. "We met in her apartment on Central Park West. It has views of the park on three sides, and it’s filled with photographs and objects from all her trips."
But the center of attention was definitely the hostess.
"She’s so engaging, she brings you in," he says. "We had a natural rapport."
Gruber, then 96, was also a wonderfully cooperative subject, and Richman is smart enough to let her do most of the talking, taking her from her Brooklyn childhood through her precocious academic triumphs, her burgeoning writing career, a stint working for Harold Ickes to her peerless coverage of the persecution of Europe’s Jews by the Nazis and the voyage of the "Exodus 1947."
"Give her something to do and she’s right there," Richman says. "We didn’t want just a past story, as full as her past was. The film is really about the two Ruths, past and present, and I tried to make it as [cinema] verité as possible."
The footage of the "present" Ruth became a lens through which to view the "past" Ruth, the woman who was the world’s youngest Ph.D. at 20, the first journalist into the Soviet Arctic, the woman who escorted 1,000 refugees from the Nazi terror in Naples to New York in 1944 and the photojournalist who documented the Exodus 1947.
"The film isn’t a complete biography of Ruth," Richman says. "It’s more a tale of her becoming the reporter she wanted to become, and that climaxes with the Exodus story."
And it all started with the young Ruth having a crush on her German teacher, which eventually led her to Cologne, where she witnessed a Nazi rally. German led her to translation work which, in turn, enabled her to go to the Soviet Union and so on.
It’s not unlike an afternoon in Montclair when Bob Richman was picking up his dry cleaning and … n
"Ahead of Time," directed by Bob Richman, opens on Sept. 10 at the Angelika Film Center (18 W. Houston St.). For information visit http://angelikafilmcenter.com.