Irene Lusztig is feminist filmmaker, archival researcher, and film professor at UC Santa Cruz. For the past four years Lusztig has been working on a feature length film project Yours in Sisterhood. The project is based on her research on an archival collection of thousands of (mostly unpublished) letters to the editor sent from readers all over the country to Ms. Magazine in the 70s. The film project brings to the fore questions around how we start conversations about feminism more broadly, and resonates with contemporary movements such as #MeToo. We recently spoke to Lusztig about the importance of archives in feminism and her project Yours in Sisterhood.
Jennifer Shearman: How did you get into filmmaking?
Irene Lusztig: I started making films in college in the 90s. I was a painter in high school and early college, so always a visual thinker and hands-on maker. I stumbled into a filmmaking class by accident–I didn’t like my drawing and painting teachers in my first year of college and decided to try out something else in the art department and got incredibly lucky with finding an amazing film program. I had never seen experimental, artisanal, or handmade films before and it had never really occurred to me that making a film was a thing a regular person, working on their own without a million dollar budget and a 200 person crew, might do. Nowadays the idea that anyone can can make a film with everyday tools seems quite ordinary, but I remember going to a student screening for the first time, seeing 16mm film projected, and feeling like it was completely magical that someone my age–someone like me–could make something so extraordinary. Once I started taking film classes and watched lots of American avant-garde cinema (Brakhage, Peter Hutton, and many other men!) I quickly realized that there was this whole rich history of intimate, small scale, and single-authored filmmaking, and the idea of a medium that could use images, writing, thinking, observing the world, and scissors all at the same time felt really exciting and like the obvious thing that I wanted to do.
JS: What interests you specifically in archives?
IL: When I was a teenager in the pre-Internet late 80s / early 90s, any process of self-educating about underground cultures involved spending time getting your hands dirty, rummaging, and touching old objects–I spent of lot time when I was younger in vintage clothing and used record shops looking for hidden or forgotten treasures, and I’m kind of a forager by nature. So when I first found myself in an archive it felt immediately exciting and familiar to be in a place full of piles of ephemeral things that hadn’t been thought about in a long time and were waiting to be found. There’s a sense of possibility and discovery in archival work that has always been really exciting to me–opening a box or a film can and finding a life, a gesture, words, documents, or moments that haven’t been considered in a long time. I love spending time with found artifacts and images–not exactly as a historian, but as an artist–with a kind of expansive and open looking where there is lots of freedom to think about what feels moving, uncanny, beautiful, poetic, or urgent.
Thinking about the past is also always a way of thinking about the present political moment. The past is continuously shifting and changing in relation to where we are standing right now when we look at it. So that complicated relationship compels me as well: usually when I am working with archival materials I am thinking about the past, but also working through something about the present.
JS: Why are archives and archival research important to feminism?
IL: A million reasons! One of the enduring problems in feminist history (since the beginning of feminism) is forgetting the work done by previous generations. The whole “waves” model for understanding feminism gets at this issue very directly–with each generation, we reject our mothers’ feminism, start all over again, and in the process forget or abandon all the work that our own feminism is indebted to. I work with college students and spend a lot of my time with 20 year olds contemplating this problem: even though many of my students identify as feminists, they’ve never heard of Ms. Magazine or consciousness raising or Carolee Schneemann or the Women’s Building in L.A. or Mother Art or a million other historical things that are all incredibly important forebears that have made today’s feminism possible. My students don’t have to like or agree with the ideologies of all of these things (certainly intersectional feminist conversations about race and gender are in a very different place now than forty years ago), but they should know that this work was done and that they are standing on the shoulders of this work in many ways. I’ve recently started teaching a feminist filmmaking course, and it’s been really interesting to try to think through how to teach 70s feminism to younger feminist students. At the beginning of the course I showed a bunch of 70s documentary work (like Womanhouse) and my students hated it–all of them wrote about how the work was essentialist and overly preoccupied with unimportant questions about reproduction and domesticity. One of my former students, who worked on Yours in Sisterhood as a research assistant, once told me that she rejected everything 70s (i.e. white and middle class) feminism stands for. I pointed out that the 70s letters to Ms. included letter after letter from women who weren’t allowed to wear pants to work or get bank accounts in their own name. If you’re wearing pants and have a bank account right now, you can’t just reject 70s feminism. You have to do the much messier, more complicated work of acknowledging those histories and building on top of them and tearing them down to build new, better, more inclusive feminisms all at the same time. It’s hard but really necessary work.
And, of course, at the same time that young feminists reject and forget the work of older feminists, the rest of the world is also continuously erasing the accomplishments and cultural production of feminist makers and thinkers. Feminist work is chronically underfunded, undervalued, inaccessible, marginalized, and relegated to archives. So part of doing feminist cultural work–for me–has always been to do the specific work of finding feminist or women’s histories that are buried, forgotten, neglected, or ignored–whether it’s my own grandmother (the subject of my first feature Reconstruction), a discarded educational film for women (the materials of my last feature The Motherhood Archives), or a letter from a queer teen in 1976 that never got published and got filed away in a box.
JS: Can you tell us a little about your upcoming film Yours in Sisterhood?
IL: Four years ago, I spent the summer in the Schlesinger Library (the women’s history library at Radcliffe) reading boxes of thousands of mostly-unpublished letters sent to Ms. Magazine in the 70s. Written by an incredibly diverse cross section of people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds, the letters are full of moving narratives of divorce, abortion, rape, and discrimination (alongside lighter but equally heartfelt debates on topics like masturbation and what do about female body hair). Collectively, the letters feel like an encyclopedia of both the 70s and the women’s movement–an almost literal invocation of the second-wave feminist slogan “the personal is political.” I wanted to know if this rich collective archive of everyday feminist history and experience could be a catalyst for a new kind of national conversation about feminism today. So in 2015 I began traveling around the US with a camera and portable teleprompter, inviting people (mostly but not only women) to be filmed reading and responding to original letters from their own towns. Over two and a half years of traveling, I filmed over 300 people in 32 states reading 70s letters.
The feature film that is premiering soon, Yours in Sisterhood, shows 27 of these performative readings and is the first stage of a larger project. The second stage will be an interactive archive of the readings I have collected that will be able to include many more readings than I can fit into a film. The feature film is able to think about things like time, silence, stillness, and duration in ways that are hard to do on the web; but it can only represent a small number of the voices in the project, so it has been important to me all along to imagine this project as both a film and a capacious archive.
JS: What does the reperformance of these letters bring to the table?
IL: I think that’s a complicated question and not the same answer for each performer and each letter in the project. My hope is that the reperformance does some of the work I talked about earlier of engaging with history, empathizing with history, conversing intimately with history. I thought a lot about casting as a critical space in the project–so the letter-readings are not only about the performance, but also about a very careful process of pairing up individual strangers today with strangers 40 years ago… sort of like time travel pen pals. I think when readers engage with their letters something profound can happen in the process of doing that sort of embodied listening across time–the process of literally putting someone else’s words in their body and then considering carefully what that feels like.
Many of the people who did readings for the project were really moved by their letters and identified strongly with what they read. The most common response people had to reading was that things really haven’t changed or improved (for women, people of color, LGBTQ people, etc) over the past forty years. But some people disagreed with their letters and even had complicated arguments with the letter-writer they were paired with– I think that space for negotiation and conflict is as important to the project as making a space of empathy.
I've also thought deeply about diversity and intersectionality throughout the making of this project, and it has been important to me to make sure my project reflects a very diverse range of current-day voices about feminism. Most of the letters that I selected for the project were never published, which means that the project creates an opportunity to give voice to many kinds of letters that didn’t get a voice in the 70s, including letters from transgendered and gender-nonconforming readers, readers of color, working class readers, disabled readers, and other communities that may have felt marginalized by mainstream 70s feminism. So in that sense the reperformance can create an alternative or new history of 70s conversation that maybe wasn’t really heard at the time.
JS: And finally, why do you think we need a feminist conversation now more than ever?
IL: What was most striking during my archival research is that the issues covered by these letters are still the same big issues that we are facing today–sexual harassment, violence, and assault, access to abortion and birth control, body image, workplace discrimination, gender and sexuality, race, class, and inclusivity. So, obviously feminist work is far from done and feminist conversation is still incredibly necessary.
I should also say that when I started thinking about these questions four years ago it was well before the 2016 US election, the Women’s March, the #metoo movement, and all of the many huge public conversations about feminism that are happening right now. When I started the project it definitely felt like public feminism had become quite invisible. Now, obviously, that has shifted a lot.
One of my starting points for the project was a lot of thinking about public feminism and feminist conversation–what did that look like in the 70s, at a moment in the US where everyone who had anything to say about feminism was writing to a single national magazine to try to have a big, messy, complicated conversation about feminism? And what does it look like now, at a moment where feminist conversation feels much more fragmented and more often takes place online in small echo chambers of like-minded people? What is the difference between having a conversation in a consciousness raising group with your neighbors vs. having a conversation online in the comments section of a newspaper or on Twitter (where your comments are weirdly extremely ephemeral and extremely permanent at the same time)? When I started the project I was really trying to think through the relationships between the kinds of spaces we make for conversation and listening, and the kind of visibility and power that feminist movements have in the world. I was really curious to find out what would happen if I tried to restage a 70s conversation in the present–what might it bring up or do differently from our usual ways of talking to each other? I was also really compelled–in reading the archival letters–by the sense that people in the 70s were attempting to speak to each other across vast ideological, geographical, and identity differences. Because there were fewer big national spaces where a conversation about feminism could happen, people were trying much harder to speak across significant divides. I found letters from conservative and Christian Ms. readers who were really trying to parse which aspects of mainstream feminism did and did not speak to them… and letters from readers of color and gender-nonconforming readers who were also trying to do the same thing. I think the ethics of listening–and specifically of listening across difference–is a very central idea of the project for me.
Yours in Sisterhood will premier at the Berlinale next month. To help support the film and bring it to screens globally donate here: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/yours-in-sisterhood-history-feminism#/