Giving a Voice: Irene Lusztig Discusses "Yours in Sisterhood"

An interview with the director of "Yours in Sisterhood," which draws from unpublished letters sent to the feminist magazine, "Ms."
Michael Ewins

Irene Lusztig's Yours in Sisterhood (2018) is showing October 21 – November 19, 2018 on MUBI in the United Kingdom.

Yours in Sisterhood

The title is a promise, a chorus, a farewell: Yours in Sisterhood. Since 1972, these three words have encompassed a world of experience for the readers of Ms., the first mainstream feminist magazine published in the United States. Throughout the decade—in which TIME awarded its 1975 Man of the Year to “American women,”—Ms.’ mailroom received thousands of letters addressing newly-visible and vocal women’s issues, seeking advice on employment, relationships, and civil rights (the fight to ratify the ERA amendment began in 1972), among others. With only a small margin for reader’s contributions, many of these letters never made it to print, and they were eventually archived in the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America.

Now, drawing on a collection running from 1972—1980, director Irene Lusztig has selected hundreds of letters from the archive and handed them to would-be friends and neighbors of forty years later, finding readers in the towns corresponding to each letter’s address. From police officers to former sex workers, from Atlanta to Oregon, Lusztig used the letters to create a dialogue between multiple generations of American feminism, asking volunteers to comment on their letters after reading them to camera. The result is a unique performative documentary, a project about “embodied listening, empathy… and the lost art of letter writing.” 

We spoke to Irene Lusztig about casting, language, and the ethical complications of editing.

 NOTEBOOK: You had to cast the film twice—first from thousands of letters in the Schlesinger Library, and then by finding readers to bring them to life. Did you have any specific criteria in mind when selecting the letters, and how much were you looking for readers whose circumstances mirrored them?

IRENE LUSZTIG: It was a very subtractive process. I read about 2,000 letters to start with, and then I selected over 800 in my first pass, just choosing what felt resonant or urgent or funny. I was looking for letters that felt typical of issues that would come up over and over again, but also letters that felt exceptional, like the letter from the sex worker in Long Beach that was the only one of its kind from the initial 2,000. I was very aware of the project giving a voice to letters that didn’t get the public voice they desired in the 70s, but at the same time I felt really acutely aware that I’m reproducing the problem of the magazine editor in making my own selection and cutting others. 

So, from 800 letters I filmed 300, and the film is just 27 of the readings. There were some really complicated logistics where I put all 800 letters on a map and tried to figure out where they were clustering, and how to draw a line through the U.S. Looking for people was its own idiosyncratic process, and evolved continuously as I was traveling and filming. I didn’t start out trying to match people, but I quickly discovered that it was interesting when they brought their own experience to reading the letters, so eventually I did try to look for specific kinds of people. A lot of them volunteered for the project through social media. They would fill out a survey and many people actually ended up sharing a lot of personal information, so that would give me ideas for ways of pairing them with letters. In other cases I did a huge amount of outreach and place-based research to find the right person for a certain letter, if it felt important enough. For example, the prison letter at the end of the film took about four months to find the right reader. 

NOTEBOOK: How do you resolve those issues of the editor making selections? Looking back on the film, do you wish there were any letters you’d kept in, or letters you didn’t include that perhaps feel more resonant with recent politics? 

LUSZTIG: It’s funny, the film feels much more complete and satisfying to me than I imagined it would. While choosing the letters I felt like it would never feel complete, and during editing I felt like I could remix a totally different version for different screenings. When I show the film in different local contexts, the conversation after the screening is about what’s happening locally in feminist communities, so there is a way in which it would be nice to include different letters for different situations. I showed the film in Poland this summer, and Poland is quite Catholic, quite patriarchal, lots and lots of gender issues, and abortion has been illegal there since the 90s. So all the women in the audience were asking, “why is there no abortion in the film, that’s the most important issue?” But for me, as a contemporary U.S. curator of these letters, other issues felt really pressing to me, around race and gender identity, so context changes. 

NOTEBOOK: It’s interesting to observe the local, regional attitudes that change from state to state too. The pro-gun letter from Cortland, New York brandishes Ms. a magazine for “greenhouse people” and “pseudo-intellectuals,” which made me wonder, how many letters did you select whose politics you found questionable, or outright disagreed with? 

LUSZTIG: Yeah, I thought really hard about that. In the archive there are hundreds of super conservative letters, as there would be now, I think, for any magazine or publication in the U.S. There’s a very loud and very large conservative voice in the U.S., and a loud Christian voice, anti-abortion, homophobic, racist. Those letters were difficult for me to think through, because I’m a feminist filmmaker and there are all these letters written by people who don’t identify as feminist and who are writing angrily to the magazine. But it felt wrong to ignore that part of the archive, just as it would feel wrong, now in the U.S., to pretend those voices don’t exist. Because part of the problem that we have now politically is a product of ignoring each other, or pretending that we don’t hear the voices we don’t like. And to the extent that the project is one about making a space to listen across difference, that felt really important to figure out. Something I decided was that any letters that were racist or homophobic didn’t feel productive, even though there were a lot of letters like that. I had to figure out what kind of letter could represent a more conservative voice without reproducing problematic language that wouldn’t be useful to put in the film. The gun letter sort of does that, it invokes the idea of sisterhood when she says, “you’re not sisters of mine.” And also the Christian letter from Rochester, Minnesota, which is really about feeling excluded from a conversation or not getting to feel like a part of women’s issues. I think that spoke to a lot of concerns of more conservative women right now. 

NOTEBOOK: In terms of language, I was moved by the transgender woman in Emporia who reads a letter about pronouns. It seems like every day online I read someone saying, “I can’t believe how little has changed,” and I wonder how some of the writers of these letters must feel today. You include four original writers in the film. How many did you reach out to? 

LUSZTIG: Not many more than what you see in the film. I think people assume that I would have been looking for all of the original writers, or that casting people was kind of a workaround, but really the main focus of the project was not finding the original people, and opening up a conversation by the pairings. I really only looked for the original writer when I was really curious to learn more, like the woman who built her own log cabin in Oregon when she was 19. In most cases I could find the writers within two minutes of looking for them, they’re all people who have an online presence. But the person who wrote that original letter [about pronouns] did not identify in the letter at all gender non-conforming, and there were a lot of letters about language and new language. Of course, Ms. itself was a new word, a language intervention of the 70s.

NOTEBOOK: I noticed that a lot of named authors in the magazine are men. But in Bowling Green, Ohio, a female author is criticized by a black reader for her piece “My Daddy Don’t Work,” writing that she “knows nothing about the psychology of manhood in this country.” Looking back, do you think that Ms. was progressive for its time, or still limited by the wider racial and sexual politics of the 70s?

LUSZTIG: I bought a lot of back issues on eBay and spent a lot of time reading them, and I think Ms. was really progressive actually. The narratives about Ms. and 70s feminism in general are not so positive right now. Just from my perception, I think it’s seen as very white, very middle-class, and only serving a certain group. But Ms. published lots of women, lots of black women—Alice Walker was a regular contributor, Audre Lorde, Jamaica Kincaid, and Angela Davis was in the first issue. There were much more radical publications, and Ms. certainly positioned itself as a mainstream equivalent. But they were negotiating all this stuff because it was advertiser supported, and commercial, in mass circulation, and it wanted to be all of those things. They had an office on Lexington Avenue like all the other glossy magazines, so it definitely wanted to play at the level of those big nationals. And that sometimes limited how radical it could be, or what its voice could be. But there was still a lot that surprised me—there was a cover article about Renée Richards in the 70s, although a lot trans people are very angry about the essay in that issue by Gloria Steinem. So it’s complicated, but overall as a reader looking back, there’s a lot in the magazine that I’m surprised by. 

NOTEBOOK: I was really struck by the woman in Kaukauna, reading a letter about Karen Silkwood. What made me sad was her admittance that she would’ve “kept her head down,” or not signed her name. What do you think that says for the level of transparency we’ve arrived at with social media, the instant anticipated threat, versus the relative invisibility that these women probably felt when writing their letters? 

LUSZTIG: I thought a lot about the difference between writing a letter and writing on the Internet. Everything about social media is different, of course. It’s very rapid, it’s both anonymous and has this hyper-visibility, and all those differences felt important to me. But in the 70s, anyone who had anything to say about feminism or women were all writing to one place, so it was a more centralized network. There was a place that conversation was happening, but now there are a million conversations happening that are totally isolated from each other.

NOTEBOOK: Yours in Sisterhood is also a great film about American landscapes—crop fields, factories, suburbs, signage. The images have a much deeper impact than just interstitial shots, especially when it comes to the final scene with the prison letter. At what point did they become an organizing structure, and how did you choose the locations?

LUSZTIG: The way the film is shot is simple and consistent, and I knew early on that I’d be doing that. I shot landscapes in whatever town I was in, and I knew I’d be using those shots to create a sense of place and space. Sometimes it was a pretty rushed process because we had to move onto the next city—some days I was shooting with five different people in different places, and other days I had more leisurely time to explore and film. Often the reader I was meeting chose our location. I just asked them to suggest a place where they’d feel comfortable. Some of the landscapes I really like came from that, like the Sears parking lot in Greenville, South Carolina. Greenville’s quite a charming, old downtown Southern town, but this woman wanted to meet in the Sears parking lot because it was convenient for her after work. But it’s a great shot that I wouldn’t have found on my own, and it ends up speaking to the built environment in the U.S., and the way that it reflects different aspects of a community. 

As for the ending… I didn’t know that the end would be the end until I was planning that last trip, and then I had a feeling it might be. But the reading of that letter was the very last thing I recorded, and that was several months after I shot outside of the prison, so it took a really long time to find the reader. I didn’t know for sure if it would come together, but as I was shooting there it felt like the end.

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