Life Arts

An inspirational political life captured on film

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A review of Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing

by Barbara J. Berg

Abe Osheroff leans forward in his chair as he ponders how we can lead the politically engaged life he considers central to being fully alive. Such musings are common, but what's striking is that the 90-year-old Osheroff is not simply looking back and reflecting on his rich life of activism but thinking about what still lies ahead for him.

So begins the deeply moving documentary Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing, Abe Osheroff's story of breathtaking courage and commitment. With Osheroff's opening monologue, director Nadeem Uddin brilliantly establishes the dominant theme of this work: How does an individual live righteously in an unrighteous world?

Osheroff spent his entire life answering that question -- not with erudite philosophical treatises -- although as he demonstrated many times, he was more than capable of doing so -- but with a simple unfailing passion to better humankind. To become a citizen of the world in the truest, fullest sense of the word. Wavering, quitting, or succumbing to the fear often stalking him were never options. He needed, as he said, to like the face he saw in the mirror each morning.

His was an inner determination sculptured by the inescapable inequities of his youth in a Brooklyn ghetto. The grinding desperation of the factory workers, the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, the shameless evictions of impoverished tenants, these whittled away all traces of passivity and self-preservation to leave a fierce uncompromising will. From his earliest days he became determined to fight what those on the left call "the good fight." And he did so wherever it took him.

First to Spain to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in its stand against fascism. This decision, daring in itself, became fraught with even more danger when his ship was torpedoed, requiring Abe to swim two miles to shore. He fought in several battles before a bullet destroyed one of his knees.

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Abe came back to the states and immersed himself in the labor protests of the late 1930s. With his early call for workers' compensation, even some of this friends thought he was "nuts." But Abe never backed down from demanding rights for the downtrodden and disenfranchised.

Using his skills as a carpenter, he traveled to Mississippi during the Freedom Summer in 1964 to construct a community center. Danger dogged him at every turn; his car was blown up the night he arrived, the house he was staying in was riddled with a thousand bullets, but he stayed with his work.

And he built homes, again, in Nicaragua, in the poor rural communities -- 30 houses altogether, including the roads and bridges to reach them. Osheroff was a vocal opponent of the war in Vietnam, and continued his activism up until the end of his life at the age of 92, speaking out against the Iraq War.

More than seven decades of Osheroff's political organizing are brought to life by this captivating documentary. Haunting music by David Brunn, and skillful use of news footage, some culled from Abe's own earlier award-winning film Dreams and Nightmares, bring a dramatic focus to the narrative. We listen to Osheroff in conversation with the great Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano and listen to poet Martin Espada read his tribute to Osheroff. But mostly what we hear is Abe -- authentic, irreverent and always challenging complicity in the face of injustice and inequality.

Much as One Foot in the Grave is the story of Osheroff's life, it's also a probing and unflinching look at the philosophy behind that life -- a philosophy that demands peace instead of war, human cooperation instead of exploitation. Old though he was, Osheroff refused to live in the past. Year after year, he spoke at college campuses and high schools, as he worried with and for his young audiences about our nation's misdirections. He told students that history is made through organized anger, that dissent brings growth, and, my favorite, that solidarity is love in action.

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Abe Osheroff died in April 2008. But because of the dancing beat of his courage and refusal to compromise with injustice, through this poignant documentary he will be heard by new generations. As Osheroff hoped, all that mattered to him will remain fully alive.


Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing is distributed by the Media Education Foundation.

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Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book, All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, was published in 2009 (more...)

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