Docaviv 2018: Yours in Sisterhood

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In 1973 a 13-year-old girl wrote a letter to Ms. Magazine, describing her conversation with a “nice old lady” on the bus who “thought it was a riot” when the girl told her that she wants to be president when she grows up. The letter continued: “After she finally stopped laughing she asked: Come on, what are you really going to be? Click.”

Click – it’s that moment of feminist awakening, a burst of clarity that generates a shift in perspective, rendering oppression visible. Coined by Jane O’Reilly, who was, along with Gloria Steinem and others, a co-founder of Ms. Magazine in 1972, the term was very commonly used in the 1970s; by now, few even recognize this usage. Then again, it’s 2018, 45 years later, and no woman has ever been elected President of the United States. Click.

Still from Yours in Sisterhood/Photo (c) Irene Lusztig

Irene Lusztig’s documentary, Yours in Sisterhood, illuminates a time of changes in American culture and gender politics, based on the collection of Ms. Letters 1972 – 1980, in the Schlesinger Library, at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Although some other, more radical magazines, such as Off Our Backs (1970 – 2008), preceded it, Ms. was the first national, mainstream feminist magazine. After selecting the letters, Lusztig embarked on a creative path to presenting them in documentary form. She sought out volunteers to read aloud, and in effect, perform the letters for the camera. Readers were chosen who currently lived in the same place as the original letter writer, and were filmed outdoors, to establish a feel for the place, its atmosphere and landscape. Yet the crucial element that makes this a riveting documentary, is that Lusztig chose readers who related in some way to the letter writer, in age, ethnic origin, situation in life, common issues.

The letters are, for the most part, read off a teleprompter, with the reader, of necessity, facing front and looking directly at the camera. It creates a formal, distancing effect; perhaps a reminder that these are letters written by someone else, many years ago. The film opens with the scene I described above, as a 13-year-old girl stands on a suburban sidewalk and reads aloud the letter from her counterpart of 45 years ago. The camera lingers briefly on the girl, now silent, then cuts and moves to the next reader/performer. Yet this is more than just a series of letters recited in random sequence. The film deepens as it progresses, not only raising difficult and divisive issues such as race, sexual orientation, and gun control, but establishing a dialogue between the past and the present.

Some of the most captivating moments are when the readers/performers comment on the letters they have just recited. These encounters between strangers, connected by words set to paper, are sometimes warm and inspiring, at times confrontational, questioning, and at times deeply moving. Sometimes the reader is in agreement with the letter writer, sometimes there is tension between the two views. As one of the letters says, “There is more than one way to be a feminist.”

Yet as one listens to the letters and the readers share their own experiences, reflecting on self-image, sexuality, racial discrimination, equality in the workplace, and other issues, the overwhelming impression is that so many of these issues remain unresolved. One young woman, responding to a letter by a black woman congratulating Ms. on its representation of women of color, expressed her curiosity on what precisely that representation involved, saying, “I can’t help but wonder because when I look at television and when I look at films and magazines I still don’t feel that I’ve found the reflection of myself there.” Her solution – more women behind the cameras and in the writing rooms, in effect, what Lusztig has done with this film – bringing the written and spoken words of this diverse selection of women into the public arena.

Yours in Sisterhood will be screened at Docaviv in the Depth of Field Competition – films that push the envelope of the genre, redefining “documentary.”

Sunday, May 20th at 12:45; Tuesday, May 22nd at 16:00. Both screenings will take place in Cinematheque 4. Additional information may be found on the Docaviv website.