Trying to make a documentary about current events is an incredibly slippery challenge, because news seems to happen every day and every hour these days. It’s a problem that This Is Personal tries to tackle, with uneven results.
What at first seems to be a documentary about the Women’s March in 2017 turns into a profile on two particular activists, framed by news events from the same year. The documentary focuses on immigration activist and Dreamer Erika Andiola as well as Women’s March co-president Tamika Mallory. The latter, with her connection to the controversial Minister Louis Farrakhan, ends up taking up much of the documentary, which at times feels divergent from the supposed heart of the film, the Women’s March and their subsequent actions.
It’s clear that the filmmakers were not present for the actual planning of the unprecedented 2017 Women’s March, where millions of women across the world protested the inauguration of President Donald Trump. Within the first few minutes, the 2017 Women’s March is covered, and the production quickly pivots to what happened after that history-making march, led by a diverse group of women originally assembled when would-be marchers pointed out that the organizing committee was mostly white women. Instead of profiling the co-presidents equally, filmmaker Amy Berg zeroes in on Tamika Mallory, no doubt due in part to Mallory’s penchant for attracting controversy.
We get to meet Tamika’s family, learn how she got involved with activism when her son’s father was murdered, and see her in action as she organizes and participates in sit-ins and marches. It’s clear that she’s passionate and driven and absolutely uncompromising in her dedication to the cause. With a love her or hate her personality, her blunt method of speech can sometimes land her in hot water. When disapproval starts to mount for not denouncing Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic comments, she takes time to think about what she should do, but ultimately decides that denouncing him would do more harm than good. In by far the most riveting part of the documentary, she sits down with a Brooklyn rabbi for an uninterrupted discussion of why some people would want her to apologize. Though the two don’t resolve their disagreement, it’s a powerful moment of coming together to peacefully talk through differences and focusing on what they still have in common.
Erika Andiola’s story is much more straightforward. As a Dreamer, she puts her life and her undocumented family’s lives on the line in order to strive for immigration reform. We watch as her mom faces immigration battles and Erika is arrested. It’s a poignant and moving story of a family fighting for their own rights as well as the rights of millions like them.
Both stories are told concurrently with news of the day, from Trump’s travel ban to family separation. While this is a useful tactic, it makes it difficult for the documentary to have an end. You get the sense that just when Berg wanted to wrap things up, Trump did another horrible thing that needed to be included. And while focusing on two activists was probably the easiest way to limit what could be an unending scope, it does make it drift away from the Women’s March as the grounding center. This Is Personal is a worthwhile tale of activism, but its lack of specific direction fails in making it a truly powerful documentary.