The 2017 Women’s March brought out millions of Americans who were unhappy that Donald Trump was the new president. “This Is Personal,” a new documentary that screened July 21 at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, delves deeply into the lives of the march’s leaders.
The film focuses on the organizers as they shape the movement to reflect the diversity of their individual struggles and confront the difficulty of standing together when loyalties and priorities clash.
At its heart, the film poses a question that the march’s protagonists cannot fully answer: How can people who understand very little about one another learn to work together?
The screening at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco served as a springboard for a post-film panel discussion featuring local Jewish women of color sharing their experiences of women’s marches and multiracial identity.
The film opens with a barrage of news clips portraying the dawning of the Trump era, replete with statements by the new president that many consider to be anti-women or otherwise offensive. As inauguration day on Jan. 20, 2017 approaches and the Women’s March (held the next day) snowballs into existence, the film goes behind the scenes to capture the march’s collaborative energy.
It doesn’t take long for the event’s white organizers to wake up to the need to diversify the leadership and bring on activists from underrepresented communities.
The film focuses on two organizers: co-chair Tamika Mallory, a Black Lives Matter activist working for gun reform, and Erika Andiola, Latino outreach strategist for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign and an activist for undocumented immigrants (and one herself, having been brought to the U.S. at age 11 by her mother).
Director Amy Berg follows Mallory and Andiola for two years as they balance the building of the Women’s March movement with the causes that impact their personal lives and communities.
Dreamer Andiola’s activism revolves around efforts to stave off her mother’s deportation. When the Trump administration decides to end the DACA program (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), she puts her own immigration status in jeopardy and leads a sit-in at Congress that lands her in jail.
Mallory, whose partner was shot and killed when her son was an infant, spends her days reaching out to victims, perpetrators and families affected by gun violence. In one scene, she leads a protest to NRA headquarters, then tries unsuccessfully to enlist police protection when she sees the counterprotesters are armed. In another, she voices alarm over death threats she’s receiving.
When Mallory’s association with the Nation of Islam and its leader, Louis Farrakhan, an avowed anti-Semite, comes under scrutiny, it unleashes a storm of criticism and demands for her to condemn Farrakhan’s racist language.
It also sets the stage for one of the movie’s most poignant scenes.
Rabbi Rachel Timoner, of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, New York, invites Mallory to discuss the controversy and its impact on Jewish women who see themselves as part of the movement. Wanting Mallory to denounce Farrakhan, Timoner lectures her about the responsibilities of leadership; Mallory makes it clear that she rejects Farrakhan’s language but respects his positive influence in the communities where she works. Her own work with Jewish allies speaks for itself, Mallory insists, and she shouldn’t have to answer for the words of another person.
At the end of the tense conversation, the one thing they can acknowledge in one other is their shared pain.
Rumblings of anti-Jewish bias among Women’s March leadership resurfaced this year, before its third national event, held Jan. 19. Co-chairs Mallory and Linda Sarsour (a U.S.-born Palestinian) met with a group of New York City rabbis who endorsed the event, while acknowledging that differences remained.
In fact, Jewish women of color — including several from the Bay Area — led the 2019 march in Washington, D.C., and used the hashtag #JWOCmarching to tweet about it.
Rebekkah Scharf and Tonda Case were among them. And they were also both part of the post-film panel held in the Spark Arts gallery in San Francisco.
Scharf and Case told attendees they found the experience transformative — and the black vs. Jewish controversy highlighted by the movie divisive.
“Showing up at the Women’s March in my tallit was like praying with my feet,” said Scharf, an S.F.-born Jewish Chinese American. “They want to divide us into Jewish, black, white, etc. My whole life I’ve been told that I’m half and half. I’m not half anything. I am fully present in all my identities.”
Case prayed and fasted before agreeing to join the #JWOCmarching coalition, “but it took my breath away. I see my role in the world different now,” she said.
Case, who is black, said she sympathizes with the dilemma faced by Mallory. “My father also got help from the Nation of Islam. I was angry with the rabbi [Timoner] for demanding this extra layer of proof. I say: Dayenu.”
Another panelist was Leili Davari, a speaker at the 2019 Oakland Women’s March and a regional organizer for the Jewish social action group Bend the Arc. At first, she was reluctant to attend the march, “but I was able to show up and have the difficult conversations” — especially with white Jewish women — about her complex identity as “fully Mexican American, fully Iranian American and fully Jewish.”
“If we’re not being challenged in relationships across differences,” she said, “we’re not doing the work.”
In identity and activism, intersectionality “is not a competition,” noted panel moderator Ilana Kaufman of Berkeley, the director of the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative. “It’s a concept we need to learn to make space for,” she said. “The film is an invitation to understand ourselves better and advocate on behalf of one another, because we are committed to collective liberation.”