Film Review: Mother With a Gun


An eye for an eye or the act of revenge is often retaliation in response to hurt inflicted upon oneself or upon a group of people, in particular minorities oppressed by those in power. ‘I believe violence has to be met with violence.’ Shelley Rubin, current president of the Jewish Defense League, remarks in a dramatic opening sequence which features inconspicuous shots of her from behind, her hands grasping the steering wheel of her car driving through the neighbourhood and firing a gun at a target.

Presented to viewers through the use of a shallow depth of field, a desaturated colour palate and emotionally strong visuals, reinforced by close-ups of Shelly intertwined with news footage of violent attacks on Jewish people, this is the portrait of a mother taking back control of a situation that once oppressed her.

Directed by Jeff Daniels, Mother with a Gun is a documentary profiling the origins of the Jewish Defense League with a particular focus on Shelley Rubin the current president of the group. The documentary outlines the history of the group, labeled by the FBI as right wing extremists, painting the portrait of the group’s leader a Jewish mother with a politically extreme perspective on justice.

Set to a low rumble that resounds the unease felt whilst watching, Mother with a Gun is a documentary whose subject matter carries the harrowing opinion that violence is the answer. Images relating to Jewish racial attacks in France and Belgium, along with other worldwide incidents reported on the news, are presented as snippets of fact all seeming to justify the response of many Jewish people. Those inciting violence are Jews fighting back against racial hatred which goes years, ever since the Holocaust, openly letting Daniels know about their cause with Shelley Rubin’s words, ‘that’s not terrorism, that’s just payback.’

A hugely emotional piece presenting an ever-conflicting blur of morals and ethics Mother with a Gun is the portrait of a Jewish community whose culture is sadly haunted by overwhelming loss. Grief itself is a response that can cloud any sense of clarity in determining the best course of action on how people react to a presented situation. Their response is a violent form of vigilante justice that highlights a loss of faith in authority figures, traditional defenders of the society be it government, police, or society in general.

The documentary also examines the fact that the Nixon government of the time actually abused a level of trust in relation to the privacy rights of many Jewish citizens by wiretapping their phones as a cause of ‘national security.’ It is precisely this lack of trust and perhaps the lack of response to violent incidents upon minorities that trigger a sort of vigilante action that groups like the Jewish Defense League stand for.

Founded in 1968 during a period of American history where political vocalisations are called upon in response to sociopolitical issues of the time, the Jewish Defense League comes from an era of activism and standing for ones civil rights where silence is not an option, violence is. Men who hold positions of authority within the Jewish community are given a platform to express their opinions throughout. Rabbi Meir Kahane a man of Judaism and founder of the Jewish Defense League states, ‘Sometimes justice takes precedence over peace.’ A lawyer who defended the Jewish Defense League echoes a similar sentiment, ‘The holocaust reflected the failure of Jewish strength. Jews were moral, educated, lived good lives but we didn’t have the strength to prevent a tyrant from killing us.’

The child of Holocaust survivors and now a mother herself, Shelley Rubin is the subject of the documentary Mother with a Gun whose grief stricken history has led her to where she is today. The wide held perception of documentary as factual warrants people to interpret her actions as heartless, possibly set up by the film’s opening sequence and the title itself in which the word Mother can be easily mistaken for Monster. Her almost emotionless response is frightening; a sort of knee jerk reaction to threats made to the Jewish community in particular the foundation of the American Nazi Party whose founder George Lincoln Rockwell is seen by Shelley as, ‘honouring murderers.’

Perhaps the statement is true however, vigilante justice in the form of the Jewish Defense League as a response to what happened during the Holocaust is an extreme reaction to other extremist groups such as the American Nazi Party.

It is one thing to defend or protect oneself from an attack or perceived threat but the documentary presents the question of whether things have gone too far. Those wielding guns as a form of protection also hold a history of grief, self-inflicted pressure; a sort of internal hell dealt by the situation they find themselves in.

The use of home footage, photographs, shots of her revisiting places of significance, and intimate interviews with Shelley herself along with those close to her presents Rubin first and foremost as a mother and wife stuck in an extreme world of violence, activism, and pain.

‘Sometimes violent action is necessary for a story to be on page 1 and get attention.’ Shelley Rubin tells the camera, almost devoid of any emotion after being consumed by grief and having spent her life as part of the organisation.

Consumed by the running of the Jewish Defense league, Shelley’s husband Irv and her son Ari’s behaviour is almost normalised as a Rubin family tradition. What the Rubins have inherited isn’t purely a way of defending themselves, what the Rubins have inherited is fear.

Fear itself is daunting because it can cause people to do horrid things in response or anticipation of things that may come. An extremist and violent reaction to an incident clouded by emotional distress reveals a haunting truth: if violence is the answer, then death is the result. Mother with a Gun presents a Jewish community trying to regain a sense of normality after the Holocaust, divided on how to respond to violent incidents where no one wins.

Mother with a Gun screens at Antenna Documentary Film Festival followed by a Q&A with Director Jeff Daniels on the following dates:

Sydney, Chauvel – Friday 14th Oct, 7pm
Brisbane, New Farm – Friday 28th Oct, 7pm
Melbourne, Westgarth – Friday 4th Nov, 7pm

For more information and to book visit:



Words by Addy Fong.