Interview with Irene Lusztig, Director of Yours in Sisterhood
In your documentary Yours in Sisterhood, you ask women to perform letters that were written to Ms. Magazine in the 1970s. How did you come across those letters, and, as you read through them, when did you know that this documentary would be the right project to carry on the work of Ms. Magazine?
The letters used in my project are all from the “Ms. Letters, 1972-80” collection in the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe. There are some other collections of letters to Ms., including some that were donated later to Smith College, but this is the first big collection that Ms. donated to a library in the 80s. I had spent time doing research at the Schlesinger while working on my previous film The Motherhood Archives. So I knew about this collection at the library, and I had a feeling that these boxes of letters would be interesting. I had already been thinking for some time (and across a number of projects) about the idea of feminist conversation, and I’m always interested in history and archives, so the letters seemed like they would be up my alley. I spent about a month in the summer of 2014 reading letters every day. The letters are completely amazing, and I was struck immediately by the uncanny resonance of ‘70s language that described incredibly contemporary problems and issues. I knew right away that I wanted to make a project with people reading the letters aloud.
The project definitely evolved a lot over time and through trying different things. It became a lot bigger and more interesting than I expected as I traveled to more places and as my network of project volunteers grew to the point where I was mostly meeting complete strangers, instead of the friends of friends who were my earliest readers. I don’t think I had a sense of the full scope of the project at all when I got started. Actually, I thought it might be a quick, short project that I filmed in New York or some other big city over a few days. But the more I filmed, the more interested I felt in the connections that seemed to be coming up as I paired strangers today with strangers from the past, and the more I invested I became in filming all over the country.
I’m not sure I necessarily think I’m carrying on the work of Ms. Magazine. I guess, in a sense, by making a space for a certain kind of big, loose, geographically expansive conversation I am doing something similar to what Ms. did in the ‘70s–certainly, Ms. was a hub for all kinds of feminist discussions. And I definitely felt a kind of energy around ‘70s feminism from my immersive time in the archive: I felt really curious to know whether bringing the letters out of the archive to share them with other people might be a way of recapturing that energy. But I don’t think my work is just celebratory of Ms. or nostalgic about the ‘70s. I also thought really hard about how to intervene, open up, or expand on our historical narratives about the ‘70s–and I thought a lot about who is part of the feminist conversation we should be having right now.
The women who perform the letters are current residents of the same places the original letters were written from. As you read the letters, you probably imagined voices, faces, and bodies to help bring life to them to life in your mind. From what you imagined, how did you decide who would perform which letter?
Over a few years of presenting this project as a work-in-progress, I’ve developed a term, “critical casting,” for the way I approached pairing up strangers today with strangers from forty years ago. My method of making pairings was incredibly complicated: I thought carefully about each and every letter, and in many ways, the casting process was the most significant intellectual labor of the project.
Many of the readers are people who saw my project on social media and volunteered by filling in a short online survey (that I revised, rewrote, and refined many times over the first few months of the project). People often ended up sharing really personal things about themselves when they filled in the survey, and reading all of this writing by strangers was very moving in itself. Sometimes something would spark for me in reading the survey responses and I would get intuitions about interesting ways to match people up with letters. In some cases, the match was based on noticing something in common with an original letter-writer—like someone who wrote in the survey about struggling with body image and weight could be a good reader for a letter about body image from the archive. But other times I was interested in using casting to interrogate, contradict, or expand on something about the original letter. For instance, I invited Cai, a Deaf and transgender reader to perform a ‘70s letter written by a lesbian who felt excluded and under-represented by Ms. For that letter I was interested in the idea of feeling marginalized or excluded rather than a more literal casting idea—a lesbian woman today might feel like there is a lot more mainstream representation for queer women than there used to be, but I thought Cai might have something more interesting to say about whether he feels well-represented by mainstream media.
In addition to using social media and the survey, I also did a ton of additional outreach. The people who signed up for my project overwhelmingly self-identified as white and educated (and many were old enough to remember Ms.)—which makes total sense in terms of mapping onto a demographic that would naturally gravitate towards a project about ‘70s feminism and Ms. So for many of the shooting trips I worked hard to find additional readers to make sure I was including people of color, younger readers, and socioeconomically diverse readers. And sometimes I was looking for a very specific kind of reader—a female firefighter in Portsmouth NH to reflect on a ‘70s letter from a female firefighter, for instance, or a reader in a very small town. So for these letters, I also had to do local research and outreach to find people. Sometimes I spent a really long time working on a single reader if the letter felt important enough. For example, finding the formerly incarcerated reader who reads the prison letter from the ‘70s that ends the film was a process that took a few months.
So, my short explanation of how I chose readers is that it happened somewhere at the intersection of social media, project magic, and relentless detective work!
What personal experiences have influenced the way you describe sisterhood? And, how are you a sister to those who need one in the current social and political climate?
That’s an interesting question! I do have a younger sister, so I have literally been a sister for most of my life. But, more than sisterhood, I’ve actually done a lot of thinking, writing, and speaking about feminism in the context of motherhood: while I’ve always been a feminist, the experience of becoming a mother and making creative work about maternity definitely put a lot of my ideas about feminism into sharp focus. So, in thinking about this project as a kind of next step after a long period of creative work that centers maternal subjects, I’ve often framed this project as a move from thinking about embodied maternity to thinking about broader, less biologically determined ways of thinking about an ethics of maternal care. A lot of the values that are central to the method I developed for Yours in Sisterhood (thinking about care labor, empathy, listening carefully, and making space for other people to speak) are values that I personally came to through the experience of mothering. But sisterhood is also a great framework for thinking about a project that is making connections across time, space, and different communities of people. Many of the ‘70s letter-writers signed their letters “in sisterhood,” and that phrase is a lovely way to think about feminist solidarity. I guess perhaps my project takes up that ‘70s ideas of sisterhood but tries to think more expansively (and less biologically) about who gets to be a sister!
You are currently running a fundraising campaign for Yours in Sisterhood. What will the campaign cover? How will it allow you to complete the film?
The film will have its premiere screening next month at the Berlinale—it’s an incredible opportunity for the work to get significant international visibility and a true surprise to be selected! (With my last film The Motherhood Archives I heard again and again from programmers that feminism is a “niche” topic and not interesting to a general film festival audience. I hope this is a sign that programmers are rethinking some of these assumptions). So, that’s been amazing news, but it has also meant that I have had to hugely accelerate my finishing schedule. Until now I’ve been able to work with a really tiny budget by doing everything (shooting, editing, research, producing) myself in a really DIY way, and by hiring my former students to help me out. But right at the end of a film things get really expensive—there’s a sound mix, color grading, making a festival master and tons of other big expenses and things I can’t do myself. It’s been very intense to try to fundraise and finish the film at the same time, but I need this last piece of funding to get the film festival-ready.
How would you start your own letter if you were to write one today?
That feels like a hard question because it’s been years since I last sat down and wrote a proper letter–letter-writing used to be a big part of my life through the end of college, which overlapped with the beginning of email. It’s hard to fit that kind of slow, meditative practice into my life right now, and I miss it a lot. I think my own letter-nostalgia is definitely part of this project—seeing all the different handwriting, typewriters, ‘70s stationery, aerograms, and things that people crossed out and rewrote in the archive was very moving to me. I definitely want people who watch the film to think about the meaning of writing a letter and to think about their own relationship to letter-writing. I think the ways that we express ourselves to a public have changed so much in forty years. Most of our public discourse now takes place online, where it feels like everyone is yelling about their opinions, and not spending much time picking out stationery or carefully considering how to say things—so I guess maybe nowadays I find myself more interested in talking to people in person, one on one rather than trying to address a public the way the writers of those ‘70s letters hoped to do.
All of the letters are performed outside. What was the significance of choosing to do it that way instead of in their homes or places of work?
First of all, it felt really important to place the readings in public spaces. The letter to the editor is a form of civic engagement and public discourse (as opposed to a diary entry or a letter to a friend), so I was interested in thinking about visual spaces that might be in conversation with that idea of public address. I think my use of the teleprompter for the readings maybe works in a similar way–it’s a technology that we see most often in a broadcast or public address context, and I like the idea of inviting regular people to read off a prompter, it feels a little stagey and awkward, and I think that technology also does something interesting with the idea of public voice.
Also, geography is central to my project. The letters in the archive contain an incredibly expansive sense of US geography, and a letter from a farming woman in Nebraska feels completely different from a letter from a Ms. reader in the Bronx. The idea of filming all over the US came out of the letters themselves and the way that regional difference (and different levels of access to feminist media in different places) feels profoundly important across the collection. So filming outside was also a way of thinking about place and framing people inside of visually distinct regional landscapes: New Orleans looks different from Coastal Maine. But, at the same time, many of us in the US live in pretty anonymous and visually indistinct suburban environments. Lots of readers wanted to meet at their local park, and all the parks looked the same, down to the playground structures. Filming outside is a way of making visual space to think about both what is different and what is the same all over the US.
You mention that Yours In Sisterhood is a performative, participatory documentary project. For those who are unfamiliar with that documentary genre, would you be able to explain the genre and why you choose it for the film?
I’m not so attached to those terms as genre-defining categories—in fact, if anything, I am interested in working across genres and without categories. Many of my favorite films are hybrid in their approach and hard to pin down—maybe they are documentaries that use performance, or narrative films that use non-actors, improvisation, and documentary methods, or essay films, or archival films, or films that mix all of the above together in new and thoughtful ways. So, I guess my own use of these terms is less about staking out a specific genre space and more to signal to other people (funders, programmers, or people who haven’t seen a lot of formally expansive art cinema) that I’m doing something a little bit different from a mainstream documentary. There are lots of other examples of films that play with similar ideas—recent films like The Act of Killing and The Arbor are amazing examples of documentaries that use performative methods, and I am also influenced by Peter Watkins’ work with historical re-enactment and the reflexive participatory interview methods used in Chronicle of a Summer (even though I feel weird praising Chronicle of a Summer after reading the recent #MeToo exposé of Jean Rouch!).
At the same time, I think that ideas about performance and participation are part of all documentary work—everyone performs some version of themselves when a camera is brought out, and most people in a documentary are active participants whose onscreen appearance has been negotiated in some way. So I don’t think of performance and participation as unusual attributes, but maybe I am differently foregrounding these things that are always inherent to documentary. It also feels like a more consensual way of working with film subjects when you are filming someone who has volunteered as a performer—I like that.
How do you see Yours in Sisterhood creating space for audiences to reassess the status of public feminism today?
The issues covered by these letters haven’t changed very much–we are still struggling with sexual harassment, violence, and assault, access to abortion and birth control, body image, workplace discrimination, gender and sexuality, race, class, and inclusivity. Feminism is still incredibly necessary. But when I started thinking about these questions four years ago, before the election, the Women’s March, the #metoo movement, and all of the very public conversations about feminism that are happening right now, it felt like public feminism had become quite invisible. Recently that has been shifting, and it’s exciting to be finishing this project at a moment when many people are talking about feminism. I hope this project can be part of the broader conversation that is happening right now about how much we still need feminism.
So far, this film has allowed you to work with a diverse group of women and children. What do you enjoy the most about working with such a group and what have you learned from them?
I have learned so much from talking to people all over the US—I never would have had an excuse to talk to a factory worker in West Virginia, a former sex worker in Long Beach, a farmer in Iowa, a female magician in NYC, an American Indian activist in South Dakota, or a recent Miss Minnesota, to name just a few of the interesting people I’ve gotten to spend time with over the past couple of years. The longer I worked on the project, the more I pushed myself to seek out people I might never encounter in my everyday life. And that process made me think really hard about how narrow and homogenous our self-selected social environments tend to be. Even though social media makes it possible to interact with anyone anywhere, it ironically seems to reinforce that narrowness.
It’s hard to begin to summarize everything I’ve learned, but maybe the short version is about how important it is to listen to many different kinds of people. This is definitely something we’ve all been talking about more since the 2016 election. It’s actually unusual to get a real opportunity to listen to people from so many kinds of communities, places, and backgrounds. I feel incredibly grateful to all the people who have talked to me about their lives!
You have worked for close to three years on this film and now it’s an official selection of the Berlin Film Festival. That must be an amazing feeling. What advice do you have for artists launching on their own feminist projects?
Actually, it’s been almost four years! I’m also a teacher and I take mentoring young filmmakers really seriously, so these are questions I think about a lot. I think the biggest advice I give to younger/newer filmmakers is to try to maintain a sense of self-belief. When you are starting out (and especially when you are not a white man), the world really does not make space for you to be an artist or creative person, so all the work of taking your own ambitions and ideas seriously is on you. And that work can be exhausting, discouraging, and hard to keep up over time–it’s a continuous act of imagination to wake up every morning and tell yourself that you are making important creative work that matters. But it’s what you have to do to get work made. So it’s crucial to figure out what helps you sustain that sense of self-belief—whether it’s surrounding yourself with peers who are also ambitious and take your ambitions seriously, or finding good mentors, or having feminist role models.