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Tillie Olsen: A Heart in Action

Distributed by Women Make Movies, 462 Broadway, New York, NY 10013; 212-925-0606
Produced by Ann Hershey
Directed by Ann Hershey
DVD, color, 66 min.
College - Adult
Aging, American Studies, Biography, Gender Studies, History, Jewish Studies, Labor Relations, Literature, Storytelling, Women's Studies, Writing

Reviewed by Ciara Healy, Librarian, Augusta Campus, Augusta Technical College, Augusta, GA

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   
Date Entered: 6/3/2008

Ann Hershey’s film about the life of author and activist Tillie Olsen serves as a great introduction and overview of both Olsen’s life and her published works from which they were drawn. Overarching themes include the labor movement, family life, feminism, social justice and political movements specific to California’s Bay Area. These have been lived and written about by Olsen and are present in the film both in the first person and as recollections by Olsen’s daughters, her colleagues and scholars who have studied her life and writings.

The biography is thorough and linear, beginning with Olsen’s reminiscences of her childhood and family life in Nebraska through to footage of her taken in 2006 shortly before her death on January 1, 2007. There is a wonderful amount of footage of Tillie herself discussing her work, her choices, her motivation and circumstances as well as competing versions offered by her daughters.

For those who do not know Olsen's work, this is a great introduction to the author's life as well as an introduction to her written work and its importance to the second wave feminist movement(s). Though she was radicalized through her work with Socialist and labor movements, the documentary shows her legacy to be her writing about women, especially her collection of short stories Tell Me a Riddle, containing the story I Stand here Ironing - and her non-fiction book about writing, entitled Silences. Scholars interviewed for the film claim, variously, that “Tillie is credited with changing the landscape of feminist writing… Writing about women’s lives, working people” and stating boldly that Olsen, “Recreated the American short story.” The range and caliber of feminists who appear in the film and discuss Olsen’s contribution to literature include Alice Walker, Gloria Steinem and Florence Howe.

This documentary is perfect for classroom use, if a bit long to fit within the time-frame of a 50 minute class. It is accessible and covers a lot of information about Olsen’s life, the changing political climates across her life, her activism, her literary contributions and family life. It is ultimately a sympathetic and celebratory film that is a must-buy for any educational institution that teaches women’s studies, women’s literature, feminist or gender studies, working class studies and labor relations/activism. It is specifically because Olsen wrote about women’s lives and working people that this film is a solid addition to collections that support women’s and working class curricula but also because of the life she lived as a feminist and labor activist.