New Film ‘My Name Is Andrea’ Depicts the Many Sides of Feminist Andrea Dworkin

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Black-and-white image of woman with curly hair sitting behind a table
Andrea Dworkin in a still from Pratibha Parmar's 'My Name is Andrea,' 2022. (Courtesy of Kali Films)

Early on in My Name is Andrea, Pratibha Parmar’s expressionistic and fragmented new documentary, Andrea Dworkin assesses herself as a 41-year-old writer in the late 1980s:

“In a sense I am more reckless now than when I started out, because I know what everything costs, and it doesn’t matter. It is this indifference to pain, which is real, that enables one to keep going. One develops a warrior’s discipline, or one stops. Pain becomes irrelevant.”

“Pain” is not the key word in that passage, even if you know that Dworkin was sexually abused as a child and beaten and abused by her first husband (whom she met and married in Amsterdam in her 20s). It’s not the key word even taking into account, after she established herself as a writer and thinker, that she was vilified for her views on pornography and sexual intercourse as attacks on sexual liberation and personal freedom.

By the end of My Name is Andrea, we’ve come to see Dworkin (who died in 2005) as a “warrior”—persistent, uncompromising, self-disciplined, brave. Like every cutting-edge thinker, she was met with a barrage of defensive and offensive responses (even from the nominally liberal TV host Phil Donahue, in one of the many terrific clips of Dworkin’s appearances on television, radio, college campuses and symposia). She was frequently asked if (or why) she was angry, when her positions were carefully thought out and her arguments scrupulously structured.

Woman with glasses and short dark hair smiles against blue backdrop
‘My Name is Andrea’ director Pratibha Parmar. (Denna Bendall)

My Name is Andrea, like many historical documentaries, excavates the buried or misrepresented past. Clearly an author whose output began with Woman Hating: A Radical Look at Sexuality (1974) and concluded with Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant (2002) never should have been defined in a simple, dismissive sentence. At the same time, the Times Up and #MeToo movements preclude the need to devote chunks of screen time to the contemporary relevance of Dworkin’s ideas about power, sex and patriarchy. (For those with short attention spans, the demise of Roe v. Wade provides a shocking reality check.)

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My Name is Andrea receives its Bay Area premiere July 23 at the Castro as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (July 21–Aug. 7). Dworkin’s first public talk was a teenage lecture she delivered at her suburban New Jersey synagogue on the gap between Jewish ideals and practice with respect to economic inequality.

Parmar, whose numerous documentaries since the ’80s include Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth (2013), was born in Kenya, raised in Britain and now lives in the East Bay. Dworkin was not one of her formative feminist influences; instead, she was drawn to American women of color such as Walker, Angela Davis, June Jordan and Cherrie Moraga.

“The idea [of Dworkin] that was kind of prevalent in popular feminism and the left progressive movement [was] of this woman who was anti-sex, anti-male, anti-pornography, who had very simple ideas,” Parmar says in a Zoom interview from the U.K., where she was presenting My Name is Andrea at Sheffield DocFest. “This sort of reductive representation of her was completely and immediately demolished when I started to read her books.”

“I think she was a poet, first and foremost,” Parmar asserts. “The way she wrote, she was a wordsmith. These different ways of putting words together, the phrases, the juxtapositions, all of that, was just something that was really both pleasurable and powerful to encounter on the page.”

Of course, literary material and content—words and text—are not typical cinematic elements.

Woman with curly hair leans head on hand.
Andrea Riseborough in a still from 'My Name is Andrea.' (Courtesy of Kali Films)

“Andrea herself gave me the idea of how to do it,” Parmar says. “In the preface of Heartbreak she has this quote from Rimbaud: ‘Je suis un autre’ ‘I am other.’ For me, what she was saying was ‘I am many things. I am not just this one representation.’ It is resonant to Walt Whitman’s ‘I contain multitudes,’ whom she quotes as well.”

Dworkin crystallized this idea, Parmar says, in Mercy. Each chapter begins “My name is Andrea” and goes on to describe a particular event and experience in her life—a different Andrea each time, as it were. So Parmar crafted a screenplay almost entirely from Dworkin’s words, then cast five actresses—Amandla Stenberg (Wild Child), Soko (Poet), Andrea Riseborough (Lover), Ashley Judd (Rolling Thunder) and Christine Lahti (Pariah)—to play different personas and deliver her words. (You may correctly infer that My Name is Andrea is neither a linear nor a complete biography.)

“There was no precedence for this in cinema except Todd Haynes’ wonderful film I’m Not There on Bob Dylan,” Parmar says. “But that was pure fiction and all these wonderful flights of fantasy. When I researched the archival material of Andrea’s and what was there, to see her presence, to see her body, to hear her voice in different registers of fury and anger and tenderness and incisive thinking, I thought, ‘This film has to have her in it.’ These dramatizations have to work around Andrea and the archival footage. Then the challenge was how to organically weave all these different elements together so that it felt like it was a compelling narrative, that it felt like it was one woman’s life but could also be many different women’s lives too.”

While some of the performances are more effective than others (Riseborough and Lahti are especially powerful), that’s not the best way to evaluate the success of Parmar’s strategy. As she suggests, those five voices open up the space for every woman’s voice—for every viewer’s voice. It’s altogether remarkable, in fact, that a film inspired by and centered on a singularly declarative personality allows so much room for every viewer’s personal experience. (I don’t want to elide the activist component embedded in Dworkin’s determination to speak up, namely that silence equals death.)

Young woman in blue sweater and white pants on a swing
Amandla Stenberg in a still from 'My Name is Andrea.' (Courtesy of Kali Films)

Consequently, My Name is Andrea melds the personal, the political and the universal over and over until those delineations become invisible and meaningless. In a strange way—in the way of poetry, perhaps—the film turns out not to be about its subject so much as about the viewer. That is, what one learns about Andrea Dworkin (that she had a wicked sense of humor, for example) pales next to whatever one takes away for and about themselves: heightened awareness, inspiration, energy, resolve.

“I think that Andrea was very deliberate with her writing and her ideas,” Parmar says, “pushing them so far that it really destabilized our thinking around things that we have always taken for granted.”

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‘My Name is Andrea’ screens on Saturday, July 23, 5:25pm as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Details here.