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From Buses to Box Office

Patti Kenner runs a charter transportation business. She made a documentary to honor a friend. Now it's winning accolades

Patti Kenner runs a charter transportation business. She made a documentary to honor a friend. Now it’s winning accolades

By Elizabeth Dwoskin

It wasn’t until Ruth Gruber turned 97 that Patti Kenner (M.A., ’68) realized she needed to make a documentary about the long and illustrious life of her dear friend. “I am sick and tired of hearing people say that they want to make a documentary about you,” Kenner whispered into Gruber’s ear at her birthday luncheon. “I’m going to make it.”

What emerged was Ahead of Time, a deeply moving 73-minute paean to Gruber that was selected to premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last year.

No one would have questioned Kenner’s choice of topic: Gruber, after all, is the youngest person in history to earn a doctorate (at age 20, on Virginia Woolf), and the first journalist to travel to and report on the Soviet Arctic. During World War II, Gruber left journalism for a time and became a trusted member of the Roosevelt administration, carrying out a dangerous secret mission to rescue Holocaust refugees. As a reporter for The International Herald Tribune, she showed the world the first photographs of The Exodus, the ship carrying Holocaust refugees that was illegally attacked and turned away from Palestine. Gruber’s photographs, as Kenner’s film notes in the words of an advisor to President Truman, “helped arouse the conscience of men” and spurred the creation of the State of Israel.

But what about the self-appointed executive producer? Kenner, then 64, is a former schoolteacher and graduate of TC’s Early Childhood Education program who runs her family’s business, Campus Coach Lines. True, she’s also a philanthropist who sits on the boards of Carnegie Mellon University and the American Heart Association—but had she ever thought about making a documentary before?

“Are you kidding? I run a bus company!” Kenner says.

But Kenner, who studied with the philosopher Maxine Greene during her TC days, learns fast. For the job of director, she hired Robert Richman, the cinematographer for the award-winning documentaries An Inconvenient Truth and My Architect. Per Kenner’s stipulation, the filming took one year, and had a budget of $850,000 after distribution, about half of which Kenner raised. The rest she paid for from personal funds.

Kenner places much of the credit for her film’s success with Gruber—and not just for being a compelling subject. “Ruth has a room where she has collected every note and photograph she ever took,” said Kenner after a screening of the film at TC in March. “She wasn’t just a journalist. She was a superb journalist.”

When she speaks of Gruber, Kenner’s voice becomes animated. Though she barely worked on the day-to-day filmmaking, she knows just about every word Gruber utters in the documentary. “Ruth always says that, at the end of the day, look inside yourself and ask, ‘What are your tools?’” Kenner says. “Ruth’s tools were her camera and her words. I will never have an influence on the world the way Ruth Gruber does. I’ll never write a dissertation on Virginia Woolf or help create the State of Israel or save thousands of refugees fleeing Hitler. But I do feel that I have told a very important story to the world. I felt so strongly in my heart that I had to do this. And I did it. I have never been so proud of anything.”

Published Friday, May. 20, 2011