"My intention from the start has been to create multiple iterations of Yours in Sisterhood, both to be able to include many more voices and to make the project accessible in more forms to more kinds of people."
IRENE LUSZTIG is a filmmaker, archival researcher, and amateur seamstress. Her film and video work mines old images and technologies for new meanings in order to reframe, recuperate, and reanimate forgotten and neglected histories. Often beginning with rigorous research in archives, her work brings historical materials into conversation with the present day, inviting viewers to contemplate questions of politics, ideology, and the production of personal, collective, and national memories. Much of her work is centered on public feminism, language, and histories of women and women’s bodies, including her debut feature Reconstruction (2001), the feature length archival film essay The Motherhood Archives (2013), the ongoing web-based Worry Box Project (2011), and the performative documentary feature Yours in Sisterhood (2018).
Born in England to Romanian parents, Irene grew up in Boston and has lived in France, Italy, Romania, China, and Russia. Her work has been screened around the world, including at the Berlinale, MoMA, Film Society of Lincoln Center, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Anthology Film Archives, Pacific Film Archive, Flaherty NYC, IDFA Amsterdam, Hot Docs, AFI Docs, BFI London Film Festival, Melbourne Film Festival, DocLisboa, and RIDM Montréal. She has received grants from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, Massachusetts Cultural Council, LEF Foundation, New York State Council for the Arts, and Sustainable Arts Foundation and has been awarded fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Flaherty Film Seminar, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Fulbright, and the Rydell Visual Arts Fellowship. She teaches filmmaking at UC Santa Cruz where she is Professor of Film and Digital Media; she lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
I met Irene in October 2016 when I signed my friend Paige and I up to participate as readers for her new project Yours in Sisterhood, a film that explores letters sent to Ms. Magazine—the first national, wide-circulation feminist magazine in the US. I was inspired by Irene's feminist filmmaking approach, the topic of her film, and the potential of bridging history with the current day. I knew I wanted to be part of the project! I have stayed in contact with Irene over the last few years because she kept us readers and supporters updated along the way. Since Yours In Sisterhood premiered in 2018, the film has screened all over the world and continues to show, reaching new people all of the time.
Irene has been working on the next chapter of Yours in Sisterhood, expanding the film into an archival project so that she can share the many readings that didn't make it into the completed film. She recorded over 300 of readings! Below is the reading Paige and I read together!
I am happy to share this interview with you. Enjoy getting to know Irene and her project Yours in Sisterhood! Admire on!
Jes: I am moved by your work, Irene. I feel like everyone should see your most recent project Yours in Sisterhood, a film project that has toured the world, connected feminism with the past and present, and created a community among those invited to participate. When did this film idea first present itself to you? How long did it take you to complete it?
Irene: That’s kind of you! In some ways it felt like the project came together quickly (for me—some of my other films have taken 5-6 years, and this one took 3 and a half years, from research to release). But in other ways the ideas of the project have developed over a much longer time. Often things that feel unresolved to me in a previous film become the questions that lead me directly to the next film. After I had my son, in 2007, I found the experience of new motherhood to be really lonely (like many women). I started wondering about what felt, at the time, like an absence of feminist group, community, or public conversation spaces to discuss experiences that felt complicated or difficult. My research and search for role models led me to a bunch of 70s feminist documentary films that seemed to be doing a radical kind of work around making listening spaces (inspired very directly by the methods of consciousness raising groups) that I found incredibly compelling; and my viewing of these films set in motion a lot of thinking (and many questions) about the 70s, the kinds of conversations people seemed to be having, and how these spaces felt different (or sometimes not different) from conversations now. Some of these questions found a form in my previous feature film, The Motherhood Archives, but at the end of that film, I still wanted to do more thinking about the 70s, about speaking and listening, and about feminist conversation. So these personal questions about feminist conversation are what initially led me to the archive (most of my projects begin with archival thinking) to spend time with boxes of unpublished letters to Ms. I spent about a month during the summer of 2014 reading a few thousand of these letters. Once I started reading the letters, I immediately felt that they were amazing. There’s a powerful radical energy that I felt reading letters in the archive, and I wanted to think of a way to bring that energy out into the word—that’s how the experiment of remaking or restaging the letters started.
For those who haven’t seen Yours in Sisterhood, how would you describe your film and what is it about? How is this film different from your previous work?
Yours in Sisterhood is based on my archival research reading thousands of mostly-unpublished letters sent to Ms. Magazine—the first national, wide-circulation feminist magazine in the US—between 1972 and 1980. I collected a few hundred of these letters for my project—on a wide range of topics that are important to feminism—and then I traveled around the US for two and a half years, filming contemporary strangers reading these letters aloud on camera. Each letter was filmed in the city or town that it was sent from, and each participant had the opportunity to respond to the letter that they were paired with. I filmed these readings with over 300 people in 32 states, and the finished film gathers 27 of these readings to create a collective portrait of feminist conversation across time and geographic space. Most of my film projects begin with archival materials and a bunch of questions I am trying to work through—so in that sense Yours in Sisterhood is on a continuum with previous work and methods. But in most of my previous work I use a lot of archival or found moving image materials onscreen—in Yours in Sisterhood, I wanted the viewer instead to feel the archive only through the bodies and performances of the readers. Visually, the film never leaves the present tense. So that feels very different from some of my other work. It’s more performative, more durational, and more formal than my older work. I like to learn new ways of making with each project.
After watching the film, I am obviously struck by all of the voices represented. I replay many of readings of the letters in my head. I am interested in the pauses after the readings, where there is a prolonged moment with the person on screen after they are done reading. It made me think strongly about the passing of time but also how important moments are. With those pauses we, as in the audience, can consciously be with that reading, to acknowledge, reflect, and be in the moment with that reader and letter. Could you speak more to why you included these pauses and to how your film explores history, time, and the present?
Yes, the pauses are really important to the form of the film. Some audience members have called them “silences,” so it feels important to point out that, even though the pauses are non-verbal, they are really not silent at all—they are very sonically active spaces where the viewer’s attention can turn away from human speech to engage with all the other sounds of place (insects, birds, traffic). So one way that those pauses function is to foreground place. I also think of the pauses as spaces of time travel. I was reading a bunch of 70s feminist sci fi while I was making the film, and started to take seriously the idea that each reader in the project is engaging in a kind of time travel as they embody the voice of someone from 40 years ago. It feels appropriate to give each reader a few seconds to travel back to the present. I think there’s a lot of very active emotional work that is happening in the pauses. And finally, the pauses also give a pace to the kind of listening that happens in the film (both the listening that each reader does through reading, and the listening that an audience does). It felt important to give each encounter in the film a lot of time and space and to ask the viewer to listen with patience to each person (something we are increasingly bad at in our attention-challenged moment). I think the pauses teach the viewer how to attend to the film.
What kind of resources did you use to make your film?
I’m lucky to have a “day job” teaching in a university. Through my job, I have access to (small) university research grants to keep my projects moving even during times when I’m not able to get bigger grants—the amounts of money are much less than a conventional feature film budget would be, but it’s usually enough to keep working in a small and scrappy DIY way. This film was especially hard to find outside funding for—it is both experimental in its form and about women—two things that have not been exciting to funders in the past (though the climate around funding women-centered work has recently been shifting in hopeful ways).
Through my job I also get to know a lot of amazing young filmmakers, so I was lucky to be able to hire my students and former students to help with shoots, with research, and with assistant editing. I had really wonderful helpers who traveled and filmed with me all over the country. I produced, filmed, researched, and edited this film myself (which is unusual for a feature length film), which means that my budget was a fraction of a feature film budget where other people are getting paid to do all of those things. My tiny feminist crew was always just me and one other helper driving from town to town. At the end of the project I did need a bigger chunk of money to get to a finished mixed and mastered film, so in the last month before the film’s festival premiere I had to crowdfund to finish the film. Asking people for money felt scary and weird at first, but people were really kind, and in some ways it felt true to the spirit of this very collective project to raise a finishing budget collectively through many small donations.
Where can folks watch Yours in Sisterhood now?
The film is still showing around in film festivals and other cinema venues—this month it’s showing in L.A. at Los Angeles Filmforum, which I’m excited about, because I did my first shooting for the project in L.A., over three weeks in the summer of 2015. I’ve been really invested in trying to find screenings in places where I filmed with people. It’s showing in Italy in September and is going to have a French theatrical release later in the year. I list screenings on the film’s website and Facebook page so that people know where it’s showing. The film also has a distributor, the wonderful Women Make Movies. Their website lists DVDs at institutional library prices, which are very expensive, but they will secretly sell reasonably priced home viewing DVDs by email request.
I know that you recorded over 300 readings for the film and a select amount was used for the final cut. I imagine you knew this when shooting for the film. As someone who is a participating reader, I always felt I was part of the project, regardless if I was in the film or not. You always gave us updates along the way, encouraging the community that was making up your film. What has been your plan or intention with the readings that aren’t in the film and have you envisioned sharing them?
I’m so glad to hear you say that. I definitely felt acutely aware of reproducing the problem of the magazine editor, making my own very tiny curated selection of voices and leaving so many others out (even as I was trying to think critically about that exact historical process of privileging some voices over others). It’s really nice to hear that you felt like you were part of a project community—this is something I worked really hard on. I realized as I was making the project that I was feeling this incredible sense of feminist community as I moved from town to town meeting so many people, but each person I met was only engaging with me for an hour or two (and maybe the hour or two happened a year or two ago by the end of the project). And the many people in the project didn’t really have a way to meet each other. So it felt important to me to try to share that feeling of interconnection with people—even though it’s hard to stay in touch with 300 people! Some people have been in regular contact since filming, which has been amazing—I have a bunch of new project friends all over the country—but there are also people I never heard from again after we filmed together.
I did know as I was shooting that I would only be able to include a small fraction of the many readings I was documenting, in part because I also knew all along that I planned to edit the readings in the film with very few cuts. It felt important for each reading in the film to feel like a full encounter with someone (as opposed to a very different style of film I could have made, intercutting lots of readings and moving from person to person more quickly). My intention from the start has been to create multiple iterations of Yours in Sisterhood, both to be able to include many more voices and to make the project accessible in more forms to more kinds of people. Now that the film is out, I’m working on an artist book (that includes close to 100 readings) and an interactive archive that will include around 200 readings. The interactive archive will be a more inclusive and more accessible (with captions!) form of the project that anyone with a web browser will be able to engage with. The archive interface is in progress, but in the meantime I’ve been releasing a reading a week from the “archive” on Facebook, Instagram, and Vimeo. So that’s another way that people can see the project.
I am very curious about your path as an artist. What helped start your career and what has sustained it?
Starting and sustaining creative careers are both hard! I have these conversations a lot with my students, who are just starting out with their creative aspirations. My parents are immigrants with math and computer backgrounds, so I didn’t really have family models for being an artist, but I always drew and painted and made things, and I wanted to be an artist for as long as I can remember. Practically, I was able to become an artist because I lived in an affordable city with cheap rent for most of my twenties (Boston—sadly no longer an affordable city) and could afford to work very part time and spend a lot of time developing my ideas and skills. I was really underemployed until my thirties, when I started teaching full time, and had a lot of free time. Emotionally it’s also hard to become an artist—I think you need to be able to sustain a kind of internal grandeur about your own ambitions for yourself over many years. When I was younger, I felt like I was performing a radical act of imagination every day that I woke up and told myself I was an artist (years before the rest of the world took me seriously as an artist). This is really hard emotional work (especially for women and people of color who often have fewer role models, less support, and therefore less confidence) but also critical. In my twenties, my other wildly ambitious creative friends were essential—we built a mutual world of belief in each other together. Now that I have a teaching job and have been making films for a longer time, it is much less scary and hard to be an artist and I have a lot more institutional support (though I also have way less free time, so nowadays my struggle is to clear enough time to make work that is exploratory, open, and can’t be made quickly). I have creative and intellectual communities, and my work with students also sustains my work in really important ways.
I am a self-proclaimed feminist artist and filmmaker, so I wonder about your own artistic practice and how it is influenced by feminism. For me it comes out in the aesthetics of my work, my approach as an artist, as well as through my perspective. How does feminism present for you in your creative work?
At this point in my work, I think it is part of everything I do—aesthetic choices, political investments, ideas about care and listening, ethical frameworks, production processes, and how I work with and center collaborators. There is a long history of documentary work that is not very feminist, a long history of exploitative, extractive, and violent documentary looking, and entrenched systems of hierarchical structures in film productions. These are all legacies I am really aware of working against.
Is there anything else you would like to add? What do you think you’ll do after you're done with Yours in Sisterhood?
I’m just starting to research a new project this summer… but it’s so new and unformed I’m not sure I’m ready to share with the internet yet! I can say that it’s based on one of the towns I encountered while filming Yours in Sisterhood, a place I feel compelled to learn more about.
Where can we find you online? How can folks learn more about you?
(and also the YIS Facebook and Instagram accounts).
Thank you for answering my questions and letting Paige and I be part of Yours in Sisterhood, Irene!
All images courtesy of the artist.
Artists I Admire is a series of interviews with artists I think highly of.