Two documentaries – Ask Dr Ruth and Koko: A Red Dog Story

Ask Dr Ruth

Dr Ruth Westheimer is a force of nature. A pocket dynamo (at four foot seven), her straight talk about sex has made her a household name in the US. In the engaging documentary Ask Dr Ruth, we learn about her background and the experiences that shaped her.

Born in Germany to Jewish parents in 1928, Ruth was effectively orphaned at the age of 10. With the rise of Nazism, she travelled alone to Switzerland in 1938 at the say-so of her father. She would never see her parents again. They were murdered during the Holocaust.

Three marriages, two children and four grandchildren followed, with stints in Palestine and France, before she finally settled in the USA. She received a doctorate there at the age of 42. While working with another highly regarded sex educator, Dr Ruth got her lucky break. She grabbed a chance to appear on an FM radio station to speak about sex. She did so in a way no one had before – speaking openly about female sexuality – and doors started opening for her. TV, books and even a board game were the result.

Even into her 90s, Dr Ruth Westheimer is still at it. As she says near the end of this fascinating portrait: “I have an obligation to live large and make a dent in this world.”

Her story unfolds through interviews with Ruth, her family and colleagues. Her childhood years are captured via watercolour animations, though I wasn’t entirely sold on them. Having said that, I found Ask Dr. Ruth a wonderful testament to a driven woman who revolutionised the narrative around sexuality. No wonder she is affectionately known as Grandma Freud.

Koko: A Red Dog Story

The movie Red Dog – about a kelpie searching the Outback for its original owner – is one of Australia’s most beloved films. The “red dog” of the title was really a dog named Koko. Koko: A Red Dog Story presents a series of interviews to tell Koko’s life story from when he was a cute puppy, mixed with dramatised action.

Red Dog’s director Kriv Stenders discovered Koko when he was a pet in country Victoria. His owners agreed to lend Koko to Stenders for the shoot. At that time, he wasn’t even intended as the lead dog for Red Dog, rather the back-up, but circumstances as described in this film saw otherwise.

When the film’s release was unexpectedly delayed and the lead Josh Lucas was unavailable due to other commitments, it was left to Koko to do the spruiking. Australia and the world fell in love with Red Dog and Koko. He was a star in every sense of the word. Then tragedy struck.

The filmmakers have taken a predominantly light-hearted approach to Koko’s story … with significant pathos at the end. Unfortunately, its tendency to slapstick and skits didn’t do it for me. I believe his story could have been told with just as much love, reverence and fun, but without the silliness. And I like so many others loved Red Dog and was really interested in Koko’s story.

The story is by Nelson Woss, with screenplay by the two directors, Aaron McCann and Dominic Pearce. The film combines historical footage with actors portraying the roles of the key players, so Sarah Woods is Carol Hobday, Toby Truslove is Kriv Stenders and Felix Williamson plays Nelson Woss. Red Dog’s (real) producer Woss was particularly moving – he brought me to tears.

So, I remain pleased Koko’s life has been captured for all to see, notwithstanding a not entirely satisfying style of storytelling.

Alex First

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