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Sundance Film Review: ‘This Is Personal’

Leaders of the national Women's March are among the subjects in Amy Berg's sometimes stirring but overstuffed social-justice documentary.

'This Is Personal' Review
Paramount Television

Last week’s third-annual Women’s March was largely overshadowed by the sideshow of a standoff between dudes — specifically, Covington Catholic High students, Native American activists, and Black Israelities. This proved once again that it’s difficult for media and public alike to focus on women’s (or any other) issues amid the controversy blitzkrieg of the Trump Era.

Amy Berg’s “This Is Personal” (so freshly retitled from “Til Everybody’s Free” that it still bears that name in the Sundance catalog) attempts some course-correction by providing a glimpse of the actions, issues, and leading personalities driving the Women’s March. But its usefulness to all but the converted is limited by a lack of depth expanded on those issues and the organization itself, with a majority of screentime devoted to two high-profile activists. Either or both would have made a suitable subject for a whole documentary, but “This Is Personal” doesn’t commit to that approach either. Instead, it wavers somewhat awkwardly between broad social movement pulse-taking and a more intimate portrait of principal figures with their own specific issues and communities to represent.

Lacking the sharper, narrower focus of her prior features (“Deliver Us From Evil,” “Prophet’s Prey,” “Janis: Little Girl Blue,” etc.), “This is Personal” emerges a mix of protest montage and highlighted activist personalities that will resonate among those already on board with general feminist concerns about our political epoch. But it lacks the clear structure or thesis to enlighten more disinterested viewers, or even to serve as a good primer on why so many women (as well as liberals in general) feel the current administration is their enemy.

The film actually starts off looking like just that sort of capsule overview, as a whirlwind of clips remind how the Presidential campaign rhetoric, inflammatory in so many ways, was particularly afire with misogyny — both directed against Hillary Clinton, and in the overall persona of Donald Trump. The latter’s long, ongoing history of derogatory comments and objectionable behavior towards women was blithely dismissed or even embraced by supporters (including no small number of women).

From there we go to the first national Women’s March, whose D.C. flagship event alone drew considerably more participants than the incoming President’s inauguration one day prior, by every estimate save his own. A subsequent avalanche of conservative policy decisions and rhetoric under the new administration seemed to realize feminists’ worst fears. Not to mention those of racial minority, LGBTQ, immigrant, and other communities.

With these events reduced to passing soundbites, “This Is Personal” is clearly intended for viewers well-versed in the roiling current U.S. political landscape, including such previously unlikely realities as the resurgence of white nationalist groups and race-baiting in everyday public discourse. At first the film seems to be headed toward a behind-the-scenes look at the principal architects of the Women’s March. But some of the women we’re introduced to in that context barely surface again, leaving us with little insight into how the organization as a whole works. Instead, Berg focuses primarily on two among the many women who stepped up in response to calls that the March needed more representatively diverse leadership.

March co-president Tamika Mallory is from a family of longtime African-American activists, bringing to the table a very personal, Black Lives Matter-allied stance against gun violence in general and police violence against the black community in particular. We see aspects of a somewhat mercurial personality that has been a magnet for controversy recently.

While most of “This Is Personal” is fast-paced and densely packed, it devotes an almost incongruously long late stretch to a sit-down between Mallory and Rabbi Rachel Timoner, whose Brooklyn congregation is one of the most progressive-politically-active in the nation. But she worries whether they can find common ground working with Mallory when he is also aligned with the Nation of Islam and its leader Louis Farrakhan, who’s noted for his over-the-top anti-Semitic remarks. (Omitted here is any mention of similar remarks Mallory purportedly made herself, but denies.) Mallory’s response feels equal parts reasonable, defensive, and evasive. Many viewers are likely to be left with troubling questions this film doesn’t have the space or perhaps inclination to address.

No such ambivalence arises around the other principal figure here, Erika Andiola, an Arizona immigration-rights activist who moved to the U.S. as a child with her mother and siblings — all fleeing a violently abusive father. She is one of the “Dreamers” whose future here has grown much more uncertain given the current administration’s hostility towards DACA. And her undocumented mother is actively at risk of deportation. Andiola is willing to risk a lot for her cause, but lack of citizenship means the potential consequences are severe.

Perhaps the unifying point here is that particularly in opposition to Trump policies, the Women’s March and feminism in general now seeks to be a very wide umbrella, embracing some social-justice issues that aren’t specifically “female” at all. Yet that struggle for intersectionality — bringing together the sometimes-conflicting interests of groups who nonetheless share marginalized social status — is another major theme here that Berg doesn’t quite turn into the central one.

As compelling as its individual elements are, “This is Personal” feels unwieldy as a whole. Three credited editors can’t find any cohering organizational principle. One gets the sense this movie could have used another few weeks in the cutting room, or even been divided into multiple, more thematically distinct features.

Individual sequences are highly worked editorially, and impressive drone filler shots add visual panache to the high-grade tech/design assembly. Still, this is a good example of a documentary so deep in the middle of the fight it’s depicting, it doesn’t quite notice that its own message is too overstuffed for maximum impact.

Sundance Film Review: ‘This Is Personal’

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Special Events), Jan. 24, 2019. Running time: 98 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary) A Paramount Television, Disarming Films production, in association with Anonymous Content. (International sales: CAA, Los Angeles.) Producers: Amy Berg, Paul McGuire, Ruching Mitai, Joy Gorman Wettels, Rebecca Walker.
  • Crew: Director: Amy Berg. Camera (color, HD): Thorsten Thielow. Editors: Andrew Siwoff, Charles Griffin Gibson, Hana Wuerker. Music: Aska Matsumiya.
  • With: Tamika Mallory, Erika Andiola, Bob Bland, Teresa Shook, Linda Sarsour, Carmen Perez, Paola Mendoza, Sophie Ellman-Golan, Voncile Mallory, Lupita Andiola, Stosh Cotler, Rabbi Rachel Timoner.
  • Music By: