At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, two documentaries that shared more than a passing similarity to each other premiered one after another. The first was Rachel Lears’ Knock Down the House, an inspirational look at four women’s grassroots congressional campaigns, including that of newly elected New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The next day, Amy Berg’s This is Personal, which takes a closer look at two of the organizers of the Women’s March, Tamika Mallory and Erika Andiola, premiered with a panel discussion following the screening.
It would be easy to reduce Knock Down the House and This is Personal to dueling documentaries. But they are more like sisters, different in tone and structure while sharing similar feminist features. The two films focus on the work involved behind-the-scenes of activism and feature multiple women’s experiences tied to this big event. Both films show their subjects’ highs and lows, drawing in viewers emotionally to the story. And each documentary shows the road to activism is rarely easy and the choice to serve and represent their communities is not a decision to be taken lightly.
Knock Down the House is the stronger film of the two. The documentary starts around the time Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Paula Jean Swearengin and Amy Vilela begin their campaigns. It asks each political hopeful why they’re running, and each one shares an emotional or personal reason why they’ve decided to run for office. It’s not about the money or job security that these women are after. It’s to advocate for healthcare reform, for better access to clean water, and for safety in their communities. There’s a sense of urgency in their mission heading into the 2018 midterm elections. Not all of them win, but losing is a part of the political process as well. Bush and Swearengin announced at the Sundance premiere of their documentary that they will run again for 2020.
While not explicitly about identity or feminist politics, Knock Down the House feels inherently inclusive and intersectional. The four subjects are from different parts of the country, are from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, different incomes and have different reasons for running for office. It’s a refreshing and holistic approach to view these communities, many of which are written about in studies and in the media in broad generalities. There’s a real sense these women are the underdogs to the established Goliaths of their districts. At the beginning of Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign, her opponent wouldn’t even make time to debate her, but his reaction to her changed as the strength of her campaign grew.
Berg’s This is Personal starts with a wide lens on the various women who began the Women’s March in response to Trump’s election in 2016. Quickly, the documentary focuses in on Mallory, a community activist, and Andiola, a DREAMer and immigration reform advocate. Over the course of the unpredictable two years that followed, Andiola would have to fight her mom’s deportation, and Mallory would get caught up in a scandal over her reluctance to denounce Louis Farrakhan, the controversial Nation of Islam leader who’s made several anti-Semitic comments over the years. Eventually, it leads the documentary to a tense moment between Mallory and Rabbi Rachel Timoner, sharing their grievances and promising each other (and the audience) that they would work through this. Later, the documentary adds that umbrella organization of the Women’s March released a statement denouncing any form of discrimination or demeaning language targeting any group.
While Knock Down the House showed a kind of political sisterhood forming between the far-flung candidates, their supporters and volunteers, This is Personal has a less cheerful veneer. The aim of intersectionality is to be inclusive, but that can get messy when ideas and beliefs clash with one another. Although Mallory’s meeting with Rabbi Timoner brings the film to a standstill, it serves as a needed, if uncomfortable, conversation between two sides in the hopes of better understanding each other’s viewpoints. While This is Personal begins with a swell of energy and excitement over the first Women’s March, another issue arose: how do activists sustain a movement? The marches shrink, the number of demonstrators dwindles and fatigue sets in. How do leaders mediate the demands of resistance beyond the first outburst?
No matter the result of the election or the repeating rise and fall of the Women’s March, it’s inspiring to see so many women of color at the forefront of politics, activism, and as the main characters of movies. Watching the origin stories of Ocasio-Cortez and Andiola felt like sitting through a double feature of Latina superheroes. They, like the other women in the documentaries, are inspiring to watch do their work. Their stories are just one of many ready to be shared, learned from and perhaps they will inspire more woman to get involved in politics or activism. The women’s movement that shaped and supported them is far from receding from the fight of better representation in the seats of power, at the front of marches and wherever our stories are told.