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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 18 January 2019

'RBG': Meet the filmmakers behind the Oscar-shortlisted documentary

We meet co-directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen, who tell the story of the octogenarian Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the documentary 'RBG', being screened at Cinema Akil in January

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in mid workout routine in 'RBG'. Magnolia Pictures / CNN Films
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in mid workout routine in 'RBG'. Magnolia Pictures / CNN Films

When Supreme Court ­Justice Ruth Bader ­Ginsburg was briefly hospitalised in November after fracturing three ribs, the sense of horror among American liberals was palpable.

At 85, Ginsburg – a formidable and effective champion of women’s rights and gender equality – has become the unlikely face of the resistance against President Trump, and a fiery standard bearer for progressive values on a Supreme Court bench with a conservative majority.

Were she to vacate her seat, for any reason, Trump would gain a third appointment, tightening the right wing’s grip on the court; hence the anxiousness around her health and safety.

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 'RBG'. Courtesy Magnolia Pictures / CNN Films
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 'RBG'. Courtesy Magnolia Pictures / CNN Films

A real-life superhero and birth of a meme

Against this backdrop, Ginsburg has become a kind of real-life superhero. Powerful dissenting opinions by the veteran jurist in 2013 and 2014 captured the imagination of millennials, who bizarrely transformed the octogenarian into a pop culture legend. Her words and image were turned into internet memes, and put on mugs, T-shirts, and other merchandise. She was dubbed “The Notorious R B G” – after her fellow Brooklynite, the late rapper Biggie Smalls, known as The Notorious B I G – and became the subject of an affectionate parody on Saturday Night Live.

This phenomenon has now inspired an Oscar-shortlisted documentary, RBG, which broke into the top 10 at the United States box office during this year’s blockbuster season, surprising its co-directors, Betsy West and Julie Cohen. It comes at the same time as Mimi Leder’s Ginsberg biopic On the Basis of Sex, with Felicity Jones portraying what it took for her to become a US Supreme Court Justice. The film is expected to be released in the UAE early next year.

More to the story

The buzz around Ginsburg intrigued and amused RGB’s ­filmmakers, but they both knew, having interviewed her in the past for separate projects, that there was a lot more to her story than many of her fans realised.

Thanks to the internet, ­Ginsburg’s enlightened “ideas about our democracy, about how it should work, who it should ­protect, are being spread very widely through social media to people who really aren’t that knowledgable about Constitutional Law”, says West.

Julie Cohen and Betsy West, directors of 'RBG'. Courtesy Storyville Films
Julie Cohen, left, and Betsy West, co-directors of ‘RBG’. Courtesy Storyville Films

What most people don’t know, though, are the “challenges that justice Ginsburg faced as a young woman, the discrimination, and then what she did as a lawyer in the 1970s to change everything, not just for herself, but for all American women.”

She claims even “politically savvy people who have been around a long time” often come out of RBG saying: “I had no idea.”

Getting the interview

The fact that both filmmakers had already spent time with Ginsburg – West for a project about the history of the women’s movement, Cohen for a documentary about a famous New York fish store called Russ & Daughters – meant that she knew them when they emailed her in 2015 to request an interview. When Ginsburg told them: “Not yet”, they optimistically took the view that she hadn’t actually said no.

“We took that as a, maybe, invitation/challenge to burrow into serious research about her whole life, and figure out how we would proceed,” says Cohen.

Knowing that whomever they approached for an interview would contact Ginsburg before talking to them, they sent 20 key names to the justice for her approval. This time, she told them she wouldn’t be ready to talk to them for two years, and suggested three additional people for their list. “At the time it was like, ‘Oh my God! Two years?!’,” recalls West. “But, in fact, it took us, from that time, many months to raise the money for the documentary.”

They parlayed the “tentative go ahead” from Ginsburg into backing from CNN Films, and then began talking to people, and filming Ginsburg at public events, with the co-operation of her office and family. By the time she agreed to be interviewed, almost two years to the day that she gave her time frame, they’d made a rough cut, and worked out what they needed to ask her about.

“We knew that we really wanted to bore in on her mother,” says West, “or talk about this aspect of how she put up with the ­condescending, discriminatory comments that the Justices she was arguing in front of had no problem tossing off. So it helped us focus the interview.”

Justice Ginsburg and Jimmy Carter shaking hands, circa 1980 in 'RBG'. Courtesy Magnolia Pictures / CNN Films
Ginsburg with former US President Jimmy Carter in 1980. Courtesy Magnolia Pictures / CNN Films

The story of RBG

The film touches on Ginsburg’s background as the daughter of Jewish-Russian immigrants, and reveals the loving relationship she shared with her supportive husband. We learn about how she faced sexual discrimination at Harvard Law School, and then found herself excluded from New York law firms because they didn’t employ women as lawyers. Despite this setback, she argued cases before the Supreme Court for the American Civil Liberties Union, each of which helped to chip away at the inequality American women faced every day.

She made great strides. But, as the ad hominem abuse hurled at her in RBG, in audio clips taken from recent talk radio broadcasts illustrates, there is still a long way to go. It is the kind of “condescending, denigrating, misogynistic [rubbish] that she’s had to face all of her life,” says West.

Unfortunately for Ginsburg’s critics, she isn’t going anywhere – at least not by choice. A scene in RBG of her working out in a gym wearing a “Super Diva” sweatshirt shows her fighting fit, while her mind is still “incredibly sharp”, the filmmakers confirm.

Worryingly, however, Ginsburg was reported to have undergone surgery to remove cancerous tumours from a lung. She has beaten cancer twice before, and was again given the all-clear, but this development will still cause anxiety.

Ginsburg’s life has been a series of battles, though, and she’s only ever likely to give up her seat on the Supreme Court in extremis. “She says that she feels it’s a lifetime appointment,” says West, “and she will do it for as long as she’s capable.”

Liberals will be crossing their fingers that is at least until the next presidential election in 2020.

RBG will be screened on January 2 at Cinema Akil, Alserkal Avenue, Dubai. For timings and tickets, visit www.cinemaakil.com

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Updated: December 30, 2018 08:24 PM

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