By Andrea Thompson
The documentary “This Is Personal” is indeed very personal. Director Amy Berg doesn’t even try to be objective, as she chronicles the Women’s March and the new activism that sprung up after Trump was elected, and the various complexities involved in not only keeping that movement going, but making sure it was intersectional.
“This Is Personal” begins with a shout-out to my home state of Wisconsin, and not in the most flattering light, as activists protesting immigration show up outside Paul Ryan’s door. Ryan does not make an appearance, as Berg is far more interested in the activists themselves rather than those opposing them. Actually, she’s not much interested at all. Naturally, there are clips that serve as a reminder – as if we needed one – of how Trump embodies some of the worst of what we’re capable of, plus some time spent on the shock many Americans felt after the 2016 election.
However, Berg isn’t here to dwell on what happened so much as what people are doing about it, with her focus being on the various women of color who have been fighting the power for years. Many of them were also quick to point out that not only was the entirety of the Women’s March leadership white, white women in general have a history of being less than supportive of women with less privilege.
In fairness, once this was pointed out, the Women’s March made an effort to be more intersectional and reached out to other activists, which “This Is Personal” quickly shifts its focus to. The women who get the most screen time are Erika Andiola, an undocumented immigrant who has long been fighting for more rights and a path to citizenship for those in her community (and for her mother to stay in the country rather than being deported to Mexico, where her abusive ex-husband is sure to find her), and Tamika Mallory, a prominent civil rights activist who at one point trades in her dress and high heels after a swanky dinner for jeans and tennis shoes on her way to a march.
All the women involved are quick to point out that they’re marching because of more than just our current President, and are deeply committed to intersectionality. But of course, that proves to be more easily said than done, as claims of anti-Semitism threaten to dismantle alliances after Mallory refuses to denounce the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has become notorious for his hateful remarks about Jewish people. It requires the documentary to walk a fine line, as Berg’s sympathies obviously lie with Mallory. At least “This Is Personal” still knows the concerns raised about the ethics of her situation are very valid.
It’s how Mallory and Rachel Timoner, a lesbian rabbi at a prominent Jewish congregation in Brooklyn, handle this. Both women agree to meet and calmly debate the situation, and while their disagreements are very real, they are able to reach a kind of greater understanding that’s deeply touching, no less so because both are able to acknowledge their blind spots (Mallory relates how she had to be told how protesters chanted, “The Jews will not replace us”).
It’s a whole lot of ground “This Is Personal” covers, and occasionally its ambitions exceed its many accomplishments. Not that the crowd at the Sundance screening seemed to mind; they cheered at many of the film’s most rousing moments. Berg doesn’t follow up with all of the issues she herself raises, and “This Is Personal” also doesn’t investigate other claims of anti-Semitism from Mallory, which she has disputed. Clearly Berg got a bit too close to her subjects, but considering how long and hard the women she follows have been fighting in an environment that’s only beginning to acknowledge their pain, it’s understandable that Berg would create a tribute to those who are fighting back against the dark forces that threaten to engulf us all.