Filmmaker Irene Lusztig Brings Feminist Doc to the Wex
Filmmaker Irene Lusztig accompanies her film Yours is Sisterhood to the Wexner Center for the Arts this Saturday, Jan. 26 at 7 p.m. The documentary examines feminism across the decades as women from around the United States read letters written in the 70s and early 80s to the editors of Ms. Magazine.
This is one of a handful of regional screenings Lusztig’s booked, each in the vicinity of some of the filming, which ran from 2014 through 2018. Appearing in the film are readers based in Cincinnati as well as Bowling Green, two of the 27 participants to make the final cut from a pool of more than 300.
An archive of letters to the magazine — the first major feminist publication of its kind — represented a starting point for Lusztig, who says she’d been looking for a way to dig into the somewhat unwieldy topic of feminism for some time.
“Over the past 10 years I’ve been thinking pretty hard about public feminism, feminist confrontation, 70s feminism and what kind of space existed in the 70s for certain kinds of representation and how does that space feel different right now,” she says.
According to the filmmaker, feminism felt very different when she began the project in 2014 than it did when she wrapped in 2018.
“I think feminism felt much more accessible, and I could not have known that when I started filming,” she says.
Throughout the film, readers sometimes match the original writer in geographic location, socioeconomic situation, ethnicity or in other ways. At other times, though, speaker and original writer are very different.
According to Lusztig, what started with a Facebook call for readers turned into some serious research to find the right mix of similar and dissonant voices to represent the letters.
“I did a lot of extra outreach to widen the pool of people who were signing up,” she says, calling her approach, “very idiosyncratic and a little different for each letter.”
On occasion, the letter’s original writer appears to read her handiwork, but in all cases but one, the letter itself never made it to publication.
Says Lusztig, “Ms. did a really good job actually publishing diverse voices and diverse authors. What I thought in the letters that were published and the letters that were unpublished is that the readership was not very diverse, even though the magazine made a lot of effort in their publishing practices and the writers that they hired.”
“What I did was to over-represent that tiny number of letters that felt surprising to me,” she says, speaking of letters written by “people with identities you wouldn’t expect to be reading or writing to Ms.”
“Magazines tend to publish letters specifically about content that was published in the magazine,” Lusztig continues. “A lot of the letters that I responded to, that I thought were moving, were letters where someone talked about themselves or shared stories and they weren’t published because they were off topic, weren’t about something the magazine was talking about at the time.”
“I felt acutely aware that I was cutting people out and also giving opportunity and not giving opportunity to be heard and what that kind of gatekeeping means,” she says.
In the end, though, Lusztig feels a powerful picture of representation emerges.
“I was invested in making something that was messy and complex and didn’t just have one thing or one message, but tries to capture all of the complexity of that word ‘sisterhood,’” she says. “That’s always fraught – who’s a sister; who’s not a sister but is included in that word? I thought it was important to foreground the complexity of that more important question of who feminism is for.”
“That question of who’s included and who’s not included is still one of the biggest issues for the feminist movement,” she says. “Both in the 70s and right now.”
For tickets and information on the Wex’s screening of Irene Lusztig’s Yours in Sisterhood, with the filmmaker in attendance, visit wexarts.org.