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Doc Corner: 'Yours in Sisterhood' is an Essential Film for 2018

This week we're going to the Art of the Real festival in NYC from April 26 to May 6, which will feature documentaries by big names of international cinema like Sergei Loznitsa, Corneliu Porumboiu and Kazuhiro Soda, and will open with Julien Faraut's John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection.

By Glenn Dunks

I finally just finished season one of The Handmaid’s Tale, which feels appropriate to note as I sit down to write about the incredible documentary Yours in Sisterhood. If people thought that the themes of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel remained pertinent to present day society, then what can be said about this documentary that repurposes unpublished letters to the editor of Ms. magazine from the 1970s as a reflection on the struggles of women in contemporary society.

This compelling documentary by Irene Lusztig, full of rich words and thought-provoking dichotomies, takes its name from Amy Erdman Farrell’s 1998 non-fiction biography of the history of Ms. entitled Yours in Sisterhood: Ms. Magazine and the Promise of Popular Feminism. But that doesn’t necessarily make for the sort of rapturous documentary about Ms. that one might expect. Rather it asks the viewer to consider the many ways equality – and more specifically, feminism – has come, how it succeeded and how it failed, both then and in the current day, and how we look at and interact with history...

Most importantly, however, is that Lusztig has found a way to bridge the unheard voices of multiple generations in the most fascinating ways. Ways that will reward viewers who choose to be swept up in it, hopefully enraptured the way I was by its sophisticated use of simplicity and minimalism. Yours in Sisterhood is a truly remarkably film.

Beginning as an extended series of short webisodes, Yours in Sisterhood is not by accident a sort of film one can describe as perhaps similar to a gallery installation. The very direct matter of form that Lusztig has chosen to present her work in is vitally important to its impact. Not unfamiliar with the world of 1970s feminism having previously directed The Motherhood Archives in 2013 in part about the era’s feminist filmmaking, Lusztig's film, however, feels like a radical departure from the ways we have seen it covered before, even if the camera is just placed on a tripod and turned on. There is indeed beauty to be found in the individual compositions, a cross-country panorama of America and the woman of all ages who live there. One could be forgiven for leaping to Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson, comparing the way these two films simply unfold with a quiet elegance to reveal something much more potent than its slight window dressing would suggest.

Of course, the meat of the film are the letter recitals that Lusztig has filmed and compiled. Taking these unpublished letters around the country to be read by women in the towns that they were first written (in secret in teenage bedrooms where the power of feminism was first blooming for many or on the streets as sex workers query their place in the movement among many, many points of origin), the film is first and foremost a portal to another time and place. But as spoken by the women of today, Lusztig is able to take these letters and imbue them with something not just contemporary, but in fact timeless.

While initially just allowing the letters to be verbalised, Lusztig soon expands the parameters and offers the performers a chance to engage with the words they have just read aloud. Offering their own rebuttal of sorts. Many of the film’s most powerful moments come from women of colour: “The first thing that immediately came to my mind is that the letter writer was not a woman of color” says a woman in Cincinnati after reading a letter asking those in the movement to “agree to disagree”, clearly disregarding the very real issues many black women had (and continue to have) with the predominantly white chorus of feminism. Another African American woman, this time in Bowling Green, is asked to read a Ms. letter that was critical of the magazine for the way it derogatorily portrayed black life as naturally impoverished and chaotic. The reader eloquently details the tension between black and white feminists and praises the original author, taking particular pride in finally giving voice to the words of this woman who, some 40 years ago, put pen to paper to express feelings of a lack of racial empathy that was ultimately left to sit in a box, unpublished.

Director Irene LusztigIt’s in moments like these and so many more throughout the 97-minute runtime that truly make this a special film. This cross-generational conversation is one that is so relevant today, especially as many people of color feel they are being excluded from the narrative of feminism and equality. And this extends to lesbian and transgender women, women prisoners, abuse survivors, and even conservative women, all of whom are represented here.

Yours in Sisterhood is nothing less than one of the 2018’s most essential documentaries. An achievement of non-fiction filmmaking that both rattles and ratifies. It critiques and honours in equal measure, so much so that I imagine those who worked at Ms. may find some of its truths (or some of its perceptions of truths) uncomfortable. But that is exactly what documentaries should be trying to do. A hagiography of Ms. would no doubt be interesting, but short-sighted. Irene Lusztig has found a way to make it relevant and compelling through sheer filmmaking ingenuity.

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