'This Is Personal': Film Review | Sundance 2019

THIS IS PERSONAL Still 1 - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Paramount TV
Sisterhood is powerful, but also sometimes problematic.

Director Amy Berg ('An Open Secret') turns the spotlight on the Women's March, especially co-founder Tamika Mallory — whose support of Louis Farrakhan has generated so much controversy — in this panoramic documentary.

Directed by Amy Berg (the documentary doyenne behind such high-profile nonfiction features as An Open Secret, an investigation into child abuse in Hollywood, and the exposé of a Fundamentalist Mormon Church sect in Prophet’s Prey)This Is Personal is many things at once. It’s a crisp potted history of the Women’s March movement that saw an estimated 5 million women hitting the streets worldwide first in 2017 as protest against Donald Trump’s inauguration. Simultaneously, it’s a twinned profile of DACA recipient and activist Erika Andiola from Arizona and the Women’s March co-founder and co-president Tamika Mallory.

That means that because of Mallory’s presence here, it’s also a dialectical look at the controversy around her connection with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, a relationship that’s rived the movement’s supporters. In short, this is a film that ambitiously endeavors to wrap its arms around a subject potentially as big, diverse and rambunctiously unruly as the crowds that attend Women’s Marches themselves. Given that complex and multitude-containing brief, it’s no surprise that emotionally This Is Personal doesn’t deliver the same kind of gut punch as Berg’s earlier, more narrowly focused works.

That said, you have to cut Berg and her collaborators some slack given their trying to document hot, greasy history in the making as news relevant to their story breaks nearly every day. This Is Personal offers an admirably polyphonic, dare we say even intersectional perspective that recognizes how stakeholders in the women’s movement and contemporary feminism today hail from diverse ethnicities, classes and even gender backgrounds and consequently might hold differing positions, strategies and goals.

One of the film’s enticing paradoxes is that although the title (chosen over the more unwieldy handle Til Everybody’s Free) implicitly stresses how an individual’s politics is shaped by individual experiences, Berg keeps herself well out of view. Like the more traditional “impartial” filmmakers of the past, she’s invisible here. That’s not meant to be a criticism of Berg in any way, but in the case of this film one would think she would feel the need to foreground her own identity as a white, Jewish woman given that the climax of the film is the debate about Farrakhan between Mallory and Rachel Timoner, who also notes that she’s a lesbian, the senior rabbi at a Reformed synagogue in Brooklyn.

Having up until this point tracked Mallory closely as one of the film’s co-protagonists, exploring her past as a woman who grew up in the Harlem projects, experienced sexual abuse as a teenager and found her path into activism through the anti-gun-violence movement in the wake of the death of her own child’s father (the hateful smear campaign against her by the NRA is touched on), it’s clear that Berg doesn’t want to throw Mallory under any kind of rhetorical bus. She gives her ample space here to explain that while she condemns the sin of anti-Semitism, she can’t renounce Farrakhan entirely as a sinner, especially given how much he and the Nation of Islam have done to support people in her community.

The eloquent Timoner, however, persuasively lays out how hurtful Farrakhan’s hate speech has been and how potentially damaging such an alliance could be when it comes to maintaining a broad coalition of Women’s March participants. The two of them respectfully thrash it out for a goodly chunk of the running time. Although no conclusion is reached, let alone a Kumbaya moment of harmony, a tentative mutual understanding seems to be achieved within the safe space of the film itself.

Mileage will vary for many viewers, and undoubtedly some will not be assuaged by the place where Mallory and Timoner finally land. Ultimately, it’s clear Berg and her collaborators want to find some common ground, however rocky, so that the Women’s March, whose numbers dipped significantly this year, can continue to be relevant. The material following Andiola naturally establishes a common cause between the broad coalition of the Marchers and those fighting to help the Dreamers and DACA recipients, especially given many refugees were, like Andiola’s mother, Maria, seeking escape from abusive husbands, a grounds for asylum that the Trump administration has been trying to quash. Maria and Erika’s storyline offers a more obviously feel-good, easily digestible take-home message about love between good people triumphing over adversity and oppression. But just like in fictional drama, that also makes them less interesting as “characters” than the complex and flawed Mallory.

On the technical front, the package is assembled with quiet professionalism. Editing credited to Andrew Siwoff, Charles Griffin Gibson and Hana Wuerker tames the seething mass of archival footage to create coherent mini narratives out of the relevant news stories of the last few years. While the complexity of the issues tackled isn’t effaced or downplayed, in the end it’s the joy and ebullience of the Women’s March participants, with their pink hats and cheeky slogan signs, that comes furthest forward in the mix, which makes this eminently uplifting but not agitprop viewing.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Special Events)
With: Tamika Mallory, Erika Andiola, Linda Sarsour, Carmen Perez, Bob Bland, Maria Arreola,Voncile Mallory, Stanley Mallory, Rachel Timoner, Stosh Cotler
Production companies: A Paramount Television presentation in association with Anonymous Content of a Disarming Films production
Director: Amy Berg
Producers: Amy Berg, Paul McGuire, Ruchi Mital, Joy Gorman Wettels, Rebecca Walker
Director of photography: Thorsten Thielow
Editors:Andrew Siwoff, Charles Griffin Gibson, Hana Wuerker
Music: Aska Matsumiya
Sales: Paramount Television

98 minutes