“I think all men are chauvinistic pigs now. I’d like to know what to do about that,” a young woman reads into the camera, one of 27 vignettes in “Yours in Sisterhood,” an unconventional and provocative documentary featuring women in the present day reading and discussing letters sent by women in the 1970s to the editors of Ms. magazine.
In developing the project, filmmaker Irene Lusztig read thousands of archived letters to the magazine, founded by feminist icon Gloria Steinem, most of which were unpublished. Then, from 2015 to 2017, she traveled to 32 states and filmed women reading selected letters.
What resulted was a film, which screened at this year’s AFI Docs Festival in Washington last week, that inventively fuses the past with the present — and reminds viewers how, in many ways, little has changed for women in America. The letters, which encompass topics such as sexual harassment and assault, and racism and white supremacy, instantaneously bring to mind parallels to the current day.
“Everything that was happening constantly felt like it was in conversation with [the film],” Lusztig said in an interview.
Working on the film during the 2016 election and its aftermath, when issues of gender and race were never far from view, Lusztig said that her approach to the film evolved, as it increasingly took on a new relevance.
She began asking the contemporary women how it felt to read the letters or what they thought of the writers, creating a conversation between past and present.
After one reader in the film, Kathleen, reads a letter from a North Carolina woman who describes being in an interracial relationship and her fears about local Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi groups, she summarizes a sentiment recurring throughout the documentary.
“It just reminds me that time isn’t naturally progressive,” she says of the letter. “I think people just assume that as the years go by, things get better and better. And that’s just not the case. It’s just not the case at all.”
Aside from its relevance, the film is also a fascinating experiment in space and performance. In some ways, the concept is simple, with every reader standing in front of the camera, reading the letter from a teleprompter. Yet each letter turns into an intimate snapshot, revealing details about both the writer and the reader. The backdrop — sometimes a town square, or a parking lot, or the front yard of the reader’s home — can also take on significance when interpreting the letters.
Occasionally, Lusztig found the letter writers themselves, who poignantly reflect on their younger selves, 40 years later.
When pairing the old letters with present-day readers, Lusztig was interested in what she called “matchmaking.” In some cases, she sought specific commonalities, like finding a female police officer to read a letter from an aspiring police officer in the 1970s, who writes of being told that “we don’t hire women.”
In other cases, the connections between writer and reader were merely coincidental. Often, they were not hard to find.
For instance, with letters about body image or sexual harassment, “every woman has had that experience, it turns out,” Lusztig said. “Almost any woman in the whole world would be able to read and have something to say about it.”
“History isn’t static. It’s constantly moving and changing and looking different, depending on where you are.””
In selecting which letters to use in the film, Lusztig said that she strove to capture diversity in race, sexual orientation and geography, trying not to replicate Ms. magazine’s mostly white and “New York and California” readership.
“I wanted to make a project about the U.S.,” she said. “Through the letters, you really feel the difference between someone in a small town in Nebraska, and it is about what someone’s isolation is, or what it means to encounter Ms. in a drugstore, or a pharmacy, or an airport, or a supermarket, when you’re not in a community where you have a lot of access to feminist political organizing or activism.”
She also chose some letters that represented different ideologies, showing how feminism can take on various forms, and reflecting the public discourse — both then and now — about who feels included in social movements, and who is not.
In the film, a woman at a shooting range in upstate New York defends her gun rights, and a Minnesota woman writes that she is deeply religious and opposes abortion.
“There’s more than one way to be a feminist,” her letter reads, also emphasizing that she is “not a man-hater.”
But the project also captures tension between past and present. Some of the readers point out objections and criticisms to the letters that they are tasked with reading. According to Lusztig, she sometimes looked for pairings that were not as literal or direct, illustrating “what it feels like to not just listen to, but embody a voice that is different from yours,” she said.
“Yours In Sisterhood” will appear at several other film festivals around the country this summer. Lusztig said she also plans to show the film at colleges, and in the next year or two, release an online archive of all of the letter readings.
After filming more than 300 letters, Lusztig painstakingly selected 27 for the final film, which she hopes is representative of the range of letter writers and readers. Yet she still fell short in some ways — for example, she said that she regrets not including more women with disabilities.
“I hope the film is diverse enough that for any viewer, there’s at least one or two readers who don’t represent their views, or feel challenging to listen to,” she said.
In addition to encapsulating the importance of listening to different voices, the film and the unearthing of the letters also personify how the past can be reinterpreted and reconceived in new contexts.
“History isn’t static,” she said. “It’s constantly moving and changing and looking different, depending on where you are.”