The conceit of the movie Yours in Sisterhood is simple: People read unpublished letters written to Ms. magazine between 1972 and 1980. These people live in the same towns from which the letters were originally sent. Information on the original senders beyond that postmark is unknown both to them and us. Sometimes the performers simply read their letters; other times they muse on or respond to the words. Director Irene Lusztig arranged for and filmed over 300 such readings in 32 states, and then winnowed them down to around two dozen. Within the parameters she’s established, the documentary, screening this weekend at the Camden International Film Festival (CIFF), finds many different ways to prod at and muse on feminism now versus in the 1970s.
Ms., with its pivotal role in second-wave feminism, exists here more as a symbol and jumping-off point. While some letters refer to specific articles in the magazine, we don’t hear their names or edition dates. Removed from that context, we have the conversations from various years instead of their referents, and those conversations are then mixed into today’s discourse around feminism. In those meetings there are alternately affirmative demonstrations of how far society has come, dispiriting examples of how much some things haven’t changed, and striking contrasts in how the terms of certain issues have shifted.
Lusztig finds various ways to play with the relationship between reader and writer. In one scene, a 13-year-old girl reads a letter from a 13-year-old girl who talks about how she was laughed at for asserting she wanted to be president when she grew up. The girl today then gets to consider this in light of Hillary Clinton’s then-current run for president. Sometimes the reader can highlight a societal change — a trans woman reads a letter in which the writer suggests a new gender-neutral pronoun, “ahon,” and then speaks about her own experiences trying to get people to use her correct pronouns. The final section is filmed outside a prison in Indianapolis, with an inmate reading her letter over the phone in voiceover. She follows up by talking about how bad things still are for incarcerated people.
In a few instances, the movie actually gets the original writers of the letters to read them, creating a dialogue between the present and past. Its most touching scene sees a woman, Claudia, reading a letter she wrote when she was a teenager, expressing her anxiety over being closeted and her fears that she wouldn’t be able to have a family or normal life. She then gets to talk about how, though life did indeed turn out to be tumultuous for her at times, she went on to marry a woman and have a family.
The most interesting, pointed parts of the film come when the readers grapple with their texts. One black woman reads a letter calling for generic unity among feminists and stressing the need to “agree to disagree,” and guesses that the writer was white because of her dismissal of intersectional issues. Many of the messages criticize Ms. for not doing enough to represent or speak to various groups, whether they be people of color, queer people, or, in one instance, Christian women who “don’t hate men.”
Yours in Sisterhood is wholly sincere, but the title is tinged with some irony given the ideological frisson that emerges throughout. The concept of “sisterhood” is the one that most gets discussed, both in the letters and by the readers. Besides the wider advancement toward equality, feminism has also offered a community for many different people, often marginalized ones. Debate over how best to get these disparate elements to work in concert will continue for a long time. In making a work about the conversation itself, Lusztig makes us consider the wider flow of history. Who knows what a version of this film made 40 years from now would look like.
Yours in Sisterhood by Irene Lusztig is screening at the Camden International Film Festival on Sunday, September 16 at the Rockport Opera House (6 Central St, Rockport, Maine).