Joe Bond

My Name is Andrea

My Name is Andrea
, directed by Pratibha Parmar, had its UK Premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest, in front of an audience of documentary enthusiasts, and is still awaiting wider distribution. It uses a blend of reconstruction with different actresses playing Dworkin at different stages in her life, as well as archive material, to tell the story of the life of Andrea Dworkin driven forward by her own words. Amandla Stenberg and Soko portray Dworkin with youthful enthusiasm, Andrea Riseborough brings a depth of vulnerability and suffering, and Ashley Judd’s recitation of key passages makes the film explicitly about #MeToo, connecting her role coming out against Harvey Weinstein with the broader battle for gender equality. The film is not quite biopic or polemic, drama or documentary, but a unique genre-bending blend, as is Parmar’s style. 

Dworkin’s passion for writing and literature, and her own poeticism, provided the initial spark for Parmar’s interest. We hear how Dworkin wants to write a song for herself, as Walt Whitman wrote his own ‘Song for Myself,’ and how she had always wanted to be a writer first and foremost. Activism came afterwards, for if Dworkin was to have a voice unsmothered by gendered violence, then that voice would have to speak out and address the violations – numerous assaults from partners, the state, and others, that occurred in her life. It can mean she is seen as an activist first and foremost, with the lyricism and language left for those curious enough to delve beneath the headlines. John Berger said Dworkin was the “most misrepresented writer in the Western world.”

Creating a fuller picture of Dworkin drives the film: “I think the turning point for me came when I had access to the home movies,” says Parmar of the filmmaking process. “The family in New Jersey, the Jewish community and extended family – I looked at it and at her as a toddler, as a young woman growing up and thought this is like any one of us. The way in which she’d been demonised felt unjust.”

Dworkin as a young writer lusts for poetic inspiration, becomes an admirer of Ginsberg, and meets him. From her memoir Heartbreak: “I sent him poems when I was in high school and barely breathed until I heard back from him. He critiqued the poems I sent on a postcard that I got about three weeks later, though it seemed like ten years. I thought I would die – he acknowledged me as if I were a writer and we lived in the same world.” Spoiler alert – the story of the protege meeting the icon is predictably soiled by his attempts to seduce her. “Andrea Dworkin’s first instinct was as a poet”, says Parmar – one whose trajectory shifted, because of violence, into “examining and investigating and exploring: What is it to be a woman in a world that is controlled and organised by men and male institutions?” 

In one sequence, young Dworkin is cycling through sunlit forest, and we hear how her writing aspires to the symphonic texture of Bach. It is the birth of the creative spark depicted on film, a rare glimpse not of one ‘genius’ moment of inspiration but of a growing seed of passion and all its potential. How does nature fit into Parmar’s own creativity? She is very “attuned” to nature, new growth and the changing of the seasons, but also it provides a balm: 

“There’s so much intense material to absorb and deal with in Andrea’s life that nature played a huge part in how I coped with that, and to be reminded regularly that everything is temporary. Seasons remind you of that, nature reminds you of that, and Andrea’s words can remind you of that too.’”

Dworkin’s words, ideas and desires, videos and photography, make a friend of the audience, as do the depictions of such formative experiences – riding in the forest, falling in love, living in Amsterdam, complete with the darker formative: her arrest and detention in New York, and her experience of rape and domestic violence. As her character forms alongside her development as a writer and passionate spokesperson, Dworkin appears, in a word, charming. By the time we get to the mainstream vilification of her by the press, unpalatable anger is not Dworkin’s defining feature (as it is in so many articles and obituaries about her). We have had a chance to hear from the defendant first.

As for Pratibha’s own voice, she has been making films for decades across a variety of forms, experimental, drama, music videos and documentary, often blending and splicing forms together.

“With this particular film it was important that it was not a biography that remained in the past, but that it was looking at a writer’s life, what shaped that life, and what did she have to overcome in order to continue to be a writer and have her voice heard. That’s a journey that many writers, women, and people of colour would identify with because dominant culture is really about suppressing any kind of voice that in any way would disturb the complacent and smug representation of how things should be.”

It didn’t escape our discussion that women were being teargassed outside the Arizona State House, protesting the striking down of the Roe vs Wade ruling in the US. The verdict, Pratibha says, was another example of gender violence. “Not just silencing women’s voices but controlling their bodies.”

The film – crafted, emotive, and powerful, deftly weaving sound and vision through reenactment and archive – speaks its own relevance clearly. The archive material brings us all the way to Sarah Everard. It undoubtedly deserves UK distribution, so why hasn’t it been picked up? The reticence of broadcasters and distributors to show it on UK screens underlines their complacency and the distance culture still must travel, as it’s a film that deserves a platform if we really take women seriously at all.

Joe Bond is a writer and filmmaker based in London. He has previously worked with Sheffield Doc/Fest, Human Rights Watch Film Festival and Open City Documentary Festival to help build audiences for documentaries and is at @thisisjoebond.

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