Yael Bridge is the director of "The Big Scary 'S' Word" and forthcoming documentary on the Jews of Cuba.
Yael Bridge is the director of "The Big Scary 'S' Word" and forthcoming documentary on the Jews of Cuba.

‘The Big Scary ‘S’ Word’: Oakland filmmaker taps into zeitgeist with socialism documentary

Five years ago, Oakland filmmaker Yael Bridge set out to make a film about socialism in 21st century America. At the time, she had no idea that Bernie Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist senator from Vermont, would soar in popularity or that the Democratic Socialists of America would increase in membership from 3,000 to more than 90,000 over the same period.

“We really hit the zeitgeist at the right time,” said Bridge, whose 2020 documentary, “The Big Scary ‘S’ Word,” started streaming on Hulu in March after a successful run at film festivals around the globe. (The “S” stands for socialism, of course.)

In contrast, the anti-government protests that erupted in Cuba last summer decidedly did not play into her hand after she shot footage there in 2014 for a documentary about the city of Guantanamo’s tiny Jewish community. “At the time I filmed, there was not a sense of Cuba being on the edge of change,” she said.

As a result, the documentary she is completing for her residency at the San Francisco–based Jewish Film Institute is more of a timeless portrait of a little Jewish community in Cuba, and the values that sustain it, than a social-historical piece. “It’s just a small, verité moment in this small city in Cuba,” she said. “And it’s quite beautiful.”

For the most part, Bridge’s film career has focused on “big” rather than “small” social and political documentaries. She produced “Left on Purpose,” winner of a best in festival award at the 2016 Berkeley Film and Video Festival, about an aging anti-war activist in crisis. She was director of productions at Inequality Media, a digital video company formed in 2015 by economist Robert Reich and filmmaker Jacob Kornbluth to unpack complex economic and political issues in ways the average viewer could understand. In 2017, she produced the Emmy-nominated Saving Capitalism,” starring Reich and based on his book.

With barely a pause, the team then launched into “The Big Scary ‘S’ Word,” which Bridge produced and directed. The idea for the film grew out of “Saving Capitalism.” As the production team criss-crossed the country during the 2016 primary season, they found an unexpected degree of receptivity to the socialist ideas espoused by Sanders, who was campaigning for the Democratic nomination, and others, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Bridge said that they “came in contact with a lot of voters in counterintuitive places, like farmers in the Midwest, who said, ‘Well, I love Bernie, and I love Trump — I could go either way.’ And of course, we know what happened.”

She was not the only one to notice the crescendoing of voices of those fed up with the governing elites as their middle-class status and/or aspirations slipped away. And a significant number of the voices, she added, were saying they’d be comfortable voting for someone who identified as a democratic socialist.

“That was a huge shift for me,” Bridge said. “I grew up in a very progressive household. I had progressive politics myself. But being a socialist was not something that was even in my social circle.”

Bridge, 39, was raised in Philadelphia and attended a Jewish day school. Her parents were public-interest lawyers and “diehard liberals.” Her grandfather, a photographer who taught a young Yael his craft, was born in Palestine and immigrated to New York in 1929. After high school, Bridge spent a year in Israel, living on a kibbutz near her grandfather’s birthplace and studying photography.

She earned a certificate in documentary film at the New School in New York and a few years later entered the Stanford MFA program in Documentary Film and Media, directing four short films for her degree.

Though socialism wasn’t a word Bridge heard much in her earlier years, by the 2016 election, she had woken up to the way it was resonating with her generation.

Members of the Jewish community of Guantanamo hold a small bat mitzvah service for two elderly women in the community. (Photo/Yael Bridge)
Members of the Jewish community of Guantanamo hold a small bat mitzvah service for two elderly women in the community. (Photo/Yael Bridge)

“All the policy proposals and values were totally aligned with where I was,” she said. “I’d thought Robert Reich was as left as you could get, and then I was like, ‘Oh, actually, there’s a whole lot more to the left that is available, and I don’t know anything about it.’”

“The Big Scary ‘S’ Word” includes interviews with authors such as Naomi Klein (“This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate”) and John Nichols (the 2011 book “The S-Word”), and philosopher-activist Cornel West, who asserts in the film that “socialism is as American as apple pie.”

Bridge’s goal was to extract the word “socialism” from the purgatory of its popular connotations in American society. Lee J. Carter, a former Marine who in 2018 won a seat in the Virginia legislature with the endorsement of the Democratic Socialists of America, says in the film that since “the Red Scare, anybody who used the big, scary S-word is automatically equated with Stalin. It doesn’t work anymore.”

Other speakers in the film suggest that, as in some prosperous European nations, socialism can be compatible with democracy. The film also includes working-class people — a public school teacher, an emergency room nurse, a city councilwoman — who describe the manifold ways that the U.S. capitalist system does not work for them.

After “The Big Scary ‘S’ Word” launched, Bridge, who is pregnant with a second child after giving birth to daughter Aleph in 2019, returned to the footage she had shot in Cuba. Her interest was serendipitous, unrelated to the country’s communist history, as she had once taken a “totally eye-opening” family vacation to Havana and learned about Jewish Cuba.

She found the lens of looking at Cuba through Judaism “really fascinating. I was curious to find out why these people so wanted to be Jewish, and how they retained this identity through so many years of suppression. And how does that theology maintain, when the Cuban culture is so committed to atheism?”

She returned on her own, visited other cities, made contacts and did prep work, and went back to Guantanamo in 2014 for a week with a small crew. Among the small Jewish community of Guantanamo — 40 to 50 Jews at the time, in a city of 200,000— two women in their 80s had decided they would have bat mitzvahs, which ended up providing Bridge a nice foundation upon which to build her story.

“There are many things that incentivize Jewish identity in Cuba today, including a decent Shabbat meal,” Bridge acknowledged. “But in Guantanamo, I didn’t see that so much. They are a really warm, tight-knit community. They’re also all family. Here’s this whole community that was originally just two Turkish brothers” who ended up there after World War I.

Having waited so many years to complete this film, Bridge said, “I did worry that my Cuba story was becoming irrelevant. But that is not true. It was the same thing with the socialism film after Bernie lost the primary race: I worried it might have lost its moment. But thinking about it further I decided no, these stories are larger, these issues still matter, and will matter for a long time to come.”

“The Big Scary ‘S’ Word.” 88 minutes, unrated. Available to stream on Hulu and rent on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV and other platforms.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.