Sheffield Doc Fest Exclusive Review: Judy Versus Capitalism

Year: 2020 
Runtime: 62 Minutes 
Director: Mike Hoolboom
Stars: Judy Rebick, Dr. Henry Morgentaler

By Bianca Garner

Just who is Judy Rebick? Well, it’s a complicated question to ask. Judy is a proud second-wave feminist from Canada, and has been an activist for women’s rights for over five decades. She’s the woman who saved abortionist Dr. Henry Morgentaler from being stabbed. She’s from a Jewish family but she’s a campaigner to free Palenstine. She’s the survivor of abuse, an eating disorder, and other mental health issues. And, she fights against the corruption of Capitalism. However, she’s fighting against so much more and she’s been fighting all her life. Judy is a lot of things, but mostly she’s just herself. 

By the end of Mike Hoolboom’s documentary “Judy Versus Capitalism” you will know more about the complex being that is Judy Rebick, but this very short and brief documentary feels that it’s only just scratched the surface of this extraordinary woman that is Judy Rebick. Hoolboom is a close friend to Judy, and he certainly allows Judy’s words and actions to speak for themselves with very little interference. You won’t find any straightforward talking heads style interviews here or any traditional voice-over narration, instead “Judy Versus Capitalism” feels like an elaborate puzzle piece of someone’s life. 

“Sound, editing and visual imagery is used to great effect to immerse you in this alien world but it’s not always a pleasant experience.”

Copyright: Mike Hoolboom

“Judy Versus Capitalism” is not the easiest of documentaries to watch. It’s often alienating, confusing and far too abstract to connect with on a personal level. Broken up into six chapters (1. Family, 2. Weight, 3. Feminism, 4. Abortion, 5. Others and 6. Endnotes), the documentary seems to float throughout Judy’s life like an effortless breeze. At times the abstract imagery, sound and editing is too distracting to follow the events taking place in Judy’s life and it makes for a slightly frustrating viewing experience. One wishes that this documentary had taken a more conventional approach to telling this story, because certain names and dates become lost in the jumbled mess of the film. 

This isn’t to say that there isn’t anything to admire about this documentary. The decision to shoot with Super 8 film and use archival film footage and photographs to tell this story, is a bold one. The overall result is a surreal, dreamlike film which is both beautiful and strange at the same time. Sound, editing and visual imagery is used to great effect to immerse you in this alien world but it’s not always a pleasant experience. At times, watching this documentary feels more like a chore than something rewarding. 

Copyright: Mike Hoolboom

Where the documentary ultimately works is in its main sections, Chapter 3 and Chapter 4, which made up the main crux of the film. Hearing Judy speak about the rise of the women’s liberation movement in Canada at this time and Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s abortion clinic is fascinating. The use of slow-motion in the footage where Morgentaler is attacked and Judy defends him is brilliantly tense and thrilling.

Judy’s story of another man threatening to push in front of a train is also shocking to hear, “I never told anybody about it at the time…It would have made it too real” she recounts in her voiceover. Judy is as tough as old boots, but she’s still very clearly human and vulnerable, and that’s what Hoolboom’s documentary manages to portray so perfectly.

“Beautiful, complex, confusing and original, are a perfect fit for both this documentary and the person that is Judy Rebick.”

Copyright: Mike Hoolboom

The reason for this abstract, avant-garde approach to documentary filmmaking becomes clearer in Chapter 5: Others. Then the pieces all fall together and the documentary takes on a whole new meaning, giving us an explanation for the disorder that has previously followed. However, both Chapter 5 and Chapter 6 don’t have nearly enough screen-time devoted to them, and in the end we feel that these aspects of Judy’s life are hurriedly touched upon. Perhaps the rawness of the events discussed in Chapter 5 are still being processed by Judy herself and are too complex to fit into a 62 minute film. 

In the end, it’s hard to sum up “Judy Versus Capitalism” in words. It’s not an easy documentary to recommend to those who aren’t exactly a fan of abstract, avant-garde films, but at the same time the subject (Judy) is so fascinating that people should attempt a watch. Beautiful, complex, confusing and original, are a perfect fit for both this documentary and the person that is Judy Rebick.


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