Selma Bukstein is the Last Doll Lady
written by Sam Kolesnik
In The Last Doll Lady, a short documentary directed by Taryn Hough, we’re introduced to Selma Bukstein, the last woman alive teaching the Dolls of Democracy, an educational program created in the 1950s to teach democratic values through dolls made in the image of important historical figures.
The Dolls of Democracy had a thriving membership in earlier decades, but their numbers dwindled over time, eventually leaving only Selma Bukstein to carry the torch. Taryn Hough’s documentary focuses on Bukstein’s earnest search for a volunteer who will continue the program in her stead.
At the documentary’s opening, Bukstein remarks, “Well, at that time, in the newspapers, you could see the intolerance, bigotry, racism -- the underlying meanness. No compassion! And I figured, what can I do? What can I do? I can do this.” In the background, a few newspaper headlines flash across the screen, each providing glimpses of stories about racism, segregation and hatred.
The newspaper articles shown in the film may be from an earlier time in American history, but their subjects are very relevant to today’s world. Though in its opening moments, Hough’s documentary touches on the subject of racism, the film never addresses the issue headlong.
The Last Doll Lady doesn’t try to quantify or prove the social impact of the Dolls of Democracy program. Instead, it focuses acutely on Selma Bukstein’s diligent quest for the program to endure. Bukstein’s passion and persistence are front and center as she repeatedly calls school principals and hosts prospective volunteer orientations. She is so likable and sincere that it’s hard to not want to see her succeed, despite the fact that we’re shown very little of Dolls of Democracy’s actual impact.
Director Taryn Hough chose a fascinating and unique subject. Though The Last Doll Lady inspires as we watch Selma Bukstein trudge onward in her quest, the heartfelt documentary also rings bittersweet. After a lifetime devoted to Dolls of Democracy, Selma Bukstein calls out into the world asking for someone to continue her life’s work. The question remains, “Will anyone answer?”