In 1972, Ms. editor Jane O’Reilly coined the term “click!” in an article titled “The Housewife’s Moment of Truth.” “Click,” she said, referred to “that parenthesis of truth around a little thing that completes the puzzle of reality in women’s minds—the moment that brings a gleam to our eyes and means the revolution has begun.”1 Using the term “click!” became a marker of sisterly solidarity or feminist conversion experience in the print vernacular of Ms. magazine, expanding from published page to letters written to the editor, and then of most concern here, to charged and sometimes even contradictory moments of reading these letters in Irene Lusztig’s minimalist reflection on 1970s American feminism Yours in Sisterhood (2018).2 This article explores Lusztig’s commitment to filming the performed reading of archived letters – a technique that she calls “embodied listening” – as offering a promising way to center documentary films on social subjects (sisterhood, in this case) while avoiding longstanding dilemmas endemic to documentaries that claim to be about particular individuals as representatives of social issues (for example, years-long intrusion into subjects’ lives, spectatorial identification with the hero’s journey that inhibits social analysis, and the inevitable power inequities between subjects and filmmakers over agency for the details of representation and distribution). It also traces Lusztig’s shift from participatory to performative documentary strategies since the late 1990s as a lens on her evolving feminist documentary praxis, for which Yours in Sisterhood stands as a key contemporary node.

Lusztig is the director of the Center for Documentary Arts and Research in the Film + Digital Media Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a leader among an insurgent cohort of American feminist filmmakers.3 Yours in Sisterhood features 27 of the 306 contemporary women that Lusztig filmed from across the United States, reading and reflecting on unpublished letters written between 1972 and 1980 to the editor of Ms. magazine, the first mainstream feminist magazine in the US. When she filmed these “embodied listening” sessions between 2015 and 2017, concerns expressed in letters from the 1970s came through the bodies of the readers to dovetail in unexpected and provocative ways with present-day national conversations about gender, race, and power. Lusztig’s readers live in the locations from which the original letters were sent, and many (though not all) identify with the struggles raised by writers from forty years ago. Difficult questions about where and whether the United States has moved toward more egalitarian gender dynamics – and American women toward a more inclusive public feminism – emerge in the film’s formalist aesthetics. When readers recognised something in the 40 year-old text they voiced to the camera lens, they collectively created what Lusztig described as “a form that could contain the temporality of an urgency that is not emergent.”4 And when the voices reflected experiences not yet assimilated into a contemporary feminist movement, such as the concluding letter read over the phone by a woman named Brittany from the Indiana Women’s Prison Complex, they compel the spectator of the film to listen across difference and reimagine future work.

O’Reilly’s concept of the “click” hews closely to characterizations of evocative evidence in theories of performative documentary film, and stands as a starting point for the kinds of contingency Lusztig aimed to generate in her subjects through embodied listening. “I think there is something about simply repeating something, putting someone’s words into your body enough times that you start to actually feel different,” Lusztig explained.5 As in Lusztig’s previous films, Yours in Sisterhood unearths forgotten political ideals from archives to serve as a discomforting prompt for contemporary people to think about the present. It is in this way a performative documentary; acts of embodied listening bring a changed set of social and political circumstances – “clicks,” perhaps, or questions about clicks – into being. Starting in the mid 1990s, theorists began using the term “performative documentaries” to refer to a group of nonfiction films made from situated experiences of alienation, anger, and the loss of faith in reference, especially among filmmakers who identified with marginalised groups. Documentary theorist Stella Bruzzi (2006) in particular applied queer theorist Judith Butler’s concept of the performative to documentary. Butler had argued that gender categories normalised as natural or descriptive in fact often functioned as tools of oppressive power, exercised through the everyday “performativity” of particular gestures, codes of speech, styles of dress, and rituals of interaction. Performative expressions did not simply refer to a past. They actively changed the context of the present at the moment of their articulation. Bruzzi, in turn, referred to works by directors like Michael Moore, Molly Dineen, and Nick Broomfield who self-consciously play boors, negotiators, and irritants to elicit damning reactions from hostile documentary subjects. Such films are performative because they employ “an alienating, distancing device” to bring a set of social conditions into the world, answering through their form the question “when is filming something doing something?”6 With the exception of four fascinating readers who revisit letters they wrote forty years prior, Lusztig’s use of embodied listening in Yours in Sisterhood does not involve film subjects who reconsider their own past actions through performance. It is rather asking after the contours and limitations of solidarity on the social grounds of sisterhood. Readers may or may not identify with the 1970s-letter writer they allow into their body. The nuances of this engagement came to be the primary subject of the film.

Below, I open up a more extensive overview of the development of “embodied listening” in Lusztig’s work than reviews of her individual films have thus far been able to offer. Yours in Sisterhood presents as a formalist film of the current moment, but also builds from the elaborate archival curation and reworking practice of Lusztig’s previous films, including Reconstruction (2001), The Samantha Smith Project (2005), and The Motherhood Archives (2013). Her work demonstrates a dual commitment to formal rigor that leads viewers to unfamiliar ways of perceiving – a technique distilled in “embodied listening” – and those elements of documentary realism that facilitate accessibility for a general audience, engagement with history, and public conversation, here about feminisms past conjured through their articulation and assessment in the present.

Feminist Politics and Ruminations on Absence: The development of “embodied listening” in Lusztig’s cinema

Conceived as feminism via a glossy, mass media magazine that ran ads, Ms. was to be “written for all women, everywhere, in every occupation and profession,” in the words that co-founder Gloria Steinem penned for the first issue.7 Appeals to sisterhood constituted a solidarity politics. Steinem proposed that the “deep and personal connections of women” in the context of patriarchy could transcend “barriers of age, economics, worldly experience, race, culture.”8 Beyond simply bonds of shared oppression, Steinem claimed for sisterhood a superlative model for broader social and political engagement. Such sentiments set Ms. apart from existing women’s magazines like Ladies Home Journal, McCall’s, and Good Housekeeping. Though roundly criticised for over emphasising the concerns of young, white, middle-class professional women – the audience sought by the magazine’s advertisers and offered by the Ms. marketing department 9 over those of housewives, women of color, and low-income readers of all stripes – the editorial team aimed to balance political goals with economic necessity.

The magazine struck a nerve with many American women who discovered it. The preview issue released in January of 1972 (but labeled for spring in case it remained on retailers’ shelves for a while) sold out a run of 300,000 copies in 8 days, drew 85,000 subscription requests, and inspired an astonishing 20,000 letters to the editor from readers. Magazines with four times the number of copies in circulation averaged around 400 letters per issue at the time.10 The letters testified to the hunger for a mainstream feminist publication in the 1970s, over and above the structural tensions Ms. negotiated in selling one thing to advertisers and another to its readers. The unpublished letters to the editor now constitute a collection within the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, where Lusztig spent weeks in reading. “I felt especially moved by the isolation, urgency, and desire for feminist community I felt in these small-town letters,” she recalled in a 2018 interview, “and this made me start thinking in new ways about the relationship between geography and access to spaces of feminist activism — both in the ’70s and now.”11 The performative strategy of the film aimed to bring these two times together as a kind of “time travel” conversation. The 306 “embodied listening” sessions that she filmed will soon exist in a free, keyword-tagged online archive for flexible use in local or themed conversation settings.

But Lusztig really began thinking about the interrelation between archive, the female body, and reenactment through something like “embodied listening” sixteen years earlier in her feature documentary Reconstruction (2001), which excavates an extraordinary story about her grandmother, Moni. Lusztig spent years parsing contradictory evidence and visiting the spaces in Bucharest where her grandmother once lived to try to understand why she agreed to participate in robbing a bank car in communist Romania in the late 1950s with five male co-conspirators. The Romanian government arrested the group, and then the Ministry of Internal Affairs forced their prisoners to reenact the robbery in front of cameras for a propaganda film, also titled Reconstruction (1961). Perhaps the catalytic image for Yours in Sisterhood is the repurposed archival clip from the Romanian film of Lusztig’s grandmother walking up the stairway to her apartment, decelerated and paired with the foleyed sound of footsteps echoing in a hallway in Lusztig’s Reconstruction. The shot is a reenactment of steps originally walked several years prior to 1961 (and presumably countless less consequential times before that) in the moments before Moni was arrested. Lusztig’s mother Miki was also present the day of the arrest, but inside the apartment and not featured in the reenacted clip. Interpreted in the film through Miki’s voiceover memory of that day, the clip marks a different kind of theft. “This is one of the very few days in my life when I remember everything,” Miki reflects, eyes cast down. “I remember the colors, and the images, and the smells, and the noises. (long pause) That was the end of a sort of childhood.” For her own part as filmmaker and granddaughter, Lusztig scoured the clip for clues to help her imagine her grandmother’s thoughts and feelings as she was forced by her captors to relive this tragic moment, a production process akin to “embodied listening.”

Reconstruction, Irene Lusztig, 2001

From a more critical remove, Lusztig also returns to thinking about this clip for the intellectual questions it raises about the unstable status of the nonfiction image. She says the clip of her grandmother’s forced reenactment is now the image she uses to begin artist talks about her work:

It’s an image that is documentary and fiction and home movie and reperformance of a family / national trauma and propaganda all at the same time, and I think I recognized right away that this image held all these registers and relationships to reality. So I came very naturally and early to a space of always looking at both History with a capital H and small, intimate personal histories at the same time (which is probably what most of my work is about). And working with that footage did lead very directly to making my own re-enactments and thinking about historical embodiment of different kinds.12

Lusztig’s next project, The Samantha Smith Project (2005), built from ideas about transference, identification, and forgotten archives to begin developing the “embodied listening” technique used in Yours in Sisterhood. The film meditated on the legacies of exchange programs for peace between the United States and Russia during the Cold War through the story of ten-year-old American girl Samantha Smith, who wrote a letter in 1983 to Soviet premiere Yuri Andropov to ask “why do you want to conquer the world or at least our country?” and what he would do to prevent a nuclear war. Andropov’s improbable response, published in the Communist Party newspaper Pravda, denied ambitions for conquest and invited Smith to visit Russia with her parents to learn about Soviet culture. In the context of the Cold War, Smith’s acceptance of the invitation led to sustained media attention on national talk shows and news programs in both the United States and Russia. Smith then wrote a book about her trip. Filmed twenty years later, Lusztig’s project blends clips about Smith from news archives with scenes of Lusztig’s own trip to post-Soviet Russia. Lusztig herself participated in an exchange program between an American and Russian high school during the Cold War, and she returned to Moscow in 2003 to reconnect with her Russian program-mates and, as with Reconstruction, reflect on the ruins of Cold War political ideals. The regular inclusion of scenes in which Lusztig videotapes herself negotiating bad phone connections, wrong numbers, misinformation, missed messages, and flat refusals to participate in her film suggest the timbre of post-Soviet culture and serve to explain why there are filmed conversations with only two Russians who participated as students in the exchange program.

Samantha Smith also interweaves text from Smith’s book as read and reflected on by contemporary American girls in an early version of what would become her “embodied listening” technique. After “auditioning” to play Samantha Smith’s voice in the film by reading passages from her book, the aspiring American actresses answer Lusztig’s questions, which tend more toward an assessment of their historical knowledge than the sense of feeling Smith’s words in their bodies. Lusztig asks about American perceptions of Russia, the meaning of communism, historical-memory of the Cold War, and fears about war in the moment of the film’s production which overlapped with a low point of the war in Iraq. The girls speak (sometimes naively) to discourses of American exceptionalism, the allure of attention in a burgeoning image economy, collective forgetting, and the displacement of paranoia over communism and nuclear war by terrorism—what Lusztig calls “the manufacturing and dismantling of political enemies” in her synopsis of the film 13. This is a point driven home when seven-year-old Nora, who auditions for the part of Smith because she likes “to be watched and be on camera,” struggles to tell Lusztig what communism means:

Communism means if we had a president that they’d have to tell us what we had to do. Like we’d have to do whatever they say, but that wouldn’t be free. Being free is where you don’t have a communist country. In a communist country, you have to have a communist president, like in Iraq, and (she pauses) I don’t really remember any others.

Part of the appeal of this technique for Lusztig is its affordance for leading readers to think through and work out new ideas for the first time, in real time. As Nora grasps for language to define communism, a term she has heard but evidently does not understand, she quickly moves through a chain of associations that lead her to Iraq, branded at the moment in American media discourse as enemy. Neither the Cold War nor the Soviet Union register for this prospective surrogate for the precocious and politically engaged Samantha Smith. Yours in Sisterhood would come to employ this technique to opposite ends, to seek out bridges to the past and thoughtful rather than naïve moments of rupture.

Lusztig’s next project, The Motherhood Archives (2013), turned her longstanding concern with the collective forgetting of political ideals toward a more explicitly feminist subject. During her pregnancy and then in the years after giving birth to her son, Lusztig frequented online auction sites for rare and ignored materials that claimed authority over how to train and educate mothers, and kept track of anxieties and dreams about motherhood that she and other women contributed to her interactive online archive The Worry Box Project (2011). The Motherhood Archives weaves together heterogeneous materials about motherhood from the US, Russia, and Europe including instructional videos, medical studies, propaganda films, and self-help guides, with interviews of contemporary women who had given birth recorded in the style of 1970s feminist talk circle documentaries. While vestiges of concern with Cold War geopolitics bubble up in this project, its central focus is the chaotic, transnational movement of discourses about the institution of motherhood and practices for managing the pain of childbirth. This extends from the first use of anesthesia in an “etherdome” in 1846 to the 1980s American advertisements about Lamaze breathing techniques that promised expectant mothers control over (and responsibility for) making “this birth the greatest joy of your life.” A wry touch reveals that the French Dr. Lamaze first learned the breathing techniques from a visit to the Soviet Union, where such pain management during birth doubled as a mark of good citizenship and a cost cutting measure instituted by the socialist state. While at times the archival materials play for viewers to re-experience as such in the present, the film is a complex, tightly controlled, and dense work of reappropriation. And while it seems a project formally distinct from Yours in Sisterhood, the institutional subject and archival materials themselves shape its arch in a way that anticipates the strategy for organising that film Here there is no clear point of character identification, no losing of the self into an individual’s story as in the films about Samantha Smith and Lusztig’s grandmother.

Yours in Sisterhood combines the archival ethic of The Worry Box Project and The Motherhood Archives with a formal strategy that builds upon performative techniques worked through personally in Reconstruction and employed with the young actresses in The Samantha Smith Project. It builds directly on the form of her experimental installation short Maternity Test (2014) which featured eleven actresses reading and reflecting on anonymous posts to the website mothering.com, though Yours in Sisterhood would eschew both indoor shooting and working with professional actors to instead foreground landscape and geographical connections between 1970s writer and 2015-7 reader. It is a project driven by an archive, but absent archival footage. Embodied listening, in short, became a strategy for distilling into a single body in the present a narrow and focused empathic intersubjectivity, or a way of knowing that emerges momentarily between two subjects.14 Through representing embodied listening, viewers can see – and in some cases feel – the process of the reader in the present and the writer of the past conjoining.

Negotiating Performative Sisterhood in Yours in Sisterhood

In my analysis of the opening sequence of the film below, I show how Lusztig attempts to evoke sisterly “clicks” in the film’s viewers, a dynamic she subverts in subsequent sections. The sense of discovering the film’s rules across this sequence speaks to Lusztig’s roots in verité-style documentary construction, even though here the camera remains always on a tripod with subjects engaged for brief durations of staged reading time in three-quarter frontal frame. The technique facilitates a kind of ethnography of sisterly solidarity across two different times, sometimes with the film viewer left to reflect on letters themselves, and sometimes with the viewer identifying with the directly accountable body of the filmed reader who has just voiced another’s words.

The first shot of the film features a young girl standing outside on a suburban sidewalk and looking directly into the camera lens. A title card fades in reading “Quincy, Massachusetts, 1973” as she begins to speak, although it is clear from post-2000s vintage of cars in the background that the image we see was not recorded in the 1970s:

Dear sisters,

I am 13 and going into the eighth grade. The other day, I was on the bus, and I got talking to the nice old lady next to me. She asked me what I was going to be when I grew up. I told her I was going to be the president. She thought that was a riot. After she finally stopped laughing, she said, ‘Come on, what are you really going to be? Click!

A reader in Quincy

The shot holds for ten seconds as the girl continues to look into the lens, and then cuts to a nearby veterans’ cemetery dotted with small American flags, perhaps for Memorial Day. It is only after seeing this landscape, and having time to stew over ironic and painful associations this “click” conjures with Hillary Clinton’s 2016 US presidential campaign, that Lusztig offers a minimal context for the film’s premise. A title card communicates that thousands of letters were written in the 1970s to Ms. magazine. Viewers are left (or led) to engage with the footage like a puzzle.

The next four readers, young women who speak about workplace discrimination, sexual harassment, and assault, offer a space for the viewer of the film to go through the process of thinking themselves into the letters. All of the issues raised by these letter writers received extensive coverage in the press between 2016 and 2018. The readers themselves come from all over the country—rural Iowa, Oakland, Minnesota, Georgia—and include a white woman in a police uniform, an Asian American woman by a gas station, a black woman on a residential sidewalk, and a black woman by a small-town convenience store, all framed in three quarter frontal composition like the first reader from Quincy. The sequence prevents spectators from identifying too much with the women they see on screen. Instead, readers function as bodily vessels for words of the 1970s, almost like pass through devices. The letters they read catalyse the viewer’s process of reflection on the differences and similarities between then and now, which primes the viewer to hear the pivotal sixth reader, a tween girl from Middletown, Connecticut who wears a black, Marvel Superhero T-shirt. She breaks the spell of reading by stumbling over words written by a thirteen-year old, self-proclaimed “sister of freedom” frustrated by female family members who dismiss her activism as a phase, and female friends drawn to makeup and “not yet honest to be themselves.” In an early take, the reader asks the filmmakers what “conical” means, mistaking the term for “comical.” Then Lusztig adds a new element to the film’s form. She includes the Middletown girl’s thoughts on the letter she’s read. Much like the girls who auditioned for The Samantha Smith Project, the reader from Connecticut works through her thoughts on the letter in real time. “It really opens your eyes to read something like this, because you realise it hasn’t really disappeared at all,” she says, perhaps at this point speaking a sentiment already on the minds of viewers. As she continues searching for words, she applies the language she just read to her own life, as though internalising the consciousness of a precocious female activist she could never otherwise meet:

And I mean, you know, there’s still girls at my school wearing makeup, and their hair is all, I don’t know what they put in it, but it’s not natural. Yeah, and even like my best friends. They want to be (pause) well, a sister of freedom, but they can’t bring themselves, because they have this self-image that’s so (pause) crumbled up and torn to pieces because of just, like, magazines and stuff.

Significantly, the girl from Middletown who offers this first reflection in the film directly engages with the entwined forces of identification and sisterhood. Ms. explicitly aimed for sisterhood to function as the mechanism through which magazine reader, writer, and subject might co-identify and come to engage in politics together, a dynamic at play in Lusztig’s film through the opportunity for identification across different times. The letters represent geographic, sexual, class, professional, race, age, religious, and ethnic diversity, but a recurring dynamic in the film situates a contemporary reader with a 1970s writer whose life experiences or identity intersect.

Yet some readers question the writers they voice, if not disavow them. On occasion, Lusztig attempted to cast readers who would not likely share the sentiments of the letter writers, an evolving practice of “critical casting” that she described at length in a forthcoming article reflecting on the process of making the film. In trying to find readers through social media outreach, she found that enthusiastic respondents – ironically like the Ms. readership of the 1970s – tended to be “self-identified feminists, white, educated, middle class and over forty” and “with enough leisure time to casually spare an hour for a stranger’s experimental art project.”15 Lusztig came to see the occasional misalignment between the identity of the writer and reader – and the foregrounding of readers of color, readers with disabilities, and transgender readers while including white guns-rights readers and white Christian conservative readers – as an intellectual intervention “to contest, broaden, and push at feminist categories and boundaries.” Casting embodied listeners thus became a key intersectional practice folded into the project as well as a method for developing actionable new questions, in Lusztig’s terms:

I grew interested in using casting as a form of intellectual labor to interrogate, contradict, or expand on qualities of the original letters and their writers. What might it feel like for a Black reader to read a letter written by a white writer? For a transgendered man to read a letter about masculinity written by a cisgendered man? For a conservative factory worker in West Virginia to read a letter by an aspiring writer yearning for intellectual community? … What happens when we are invited to look at gaps between reader and writer onscreen—when rather than a seamless “good” performance we see stumbles, mistakes, and “bad” reading? 16

The reflection of Littisha, a black reader from Cincinnati, Ohio, offers a particularly compelling case for following such an intersectional practice through casting. Littisha gives voice to a writer distressed at what she perceived to be a crisis of unity at the National Organization of Woman conference in 1977. “We are all women suffering mutual oppression from political, social, economic, and cultural forces,” the writer concludes, offering that feminists might “agree to disagree” on some issues in order to press on with more “urgent” tasks like passing the Equal Rights Amendment. Right at the start, Littisha states in her reflection that her “letter writer was not a woman of color.” Phrases like “emergency,” “urgency,” and “agree to disagree” strike her as emblems of insensitivity or worse rather than as calls for unity. “When the agreement to disagree is rooted in my oppression as a woman of color, it’s really hard to just get on with it,” she says. Littisha raises questions about who does, can, or should determine the issues of highest urgency in such conferences. Following a strategy she employed with many other readers, Lusztig then asks what it feels like “to have those words in your body.” Littisha offers a response unique in the film. “It felt a little bit violent. . . Like I can’t be repeating this because I don’t agree with it, like it’s totally counter to my safety as a person. . . It felt really hard to read, and to feel convincing in reading it. That felt really weird and hard to do.”

Moments of such disidentification punctuate the film, opening the space for reflective dialogue about the structures of white privilege that too often shaped the feminist movement of the 1970s, and still persist at times. Like a verité documentary, Lusztig makes the effort here to follow subjects where they go, and to use what they say in reflection to motivate scene transitions. But such an ethic within Lusztig’s formalist (and feminist) structure produces a different relationship to viewers than documentaries that follow the stories of a few characters. Viewers cannot be swept along by a “hero’s journey” here. Tensions bubble up in transitions, pushing the film forward as a conversation about structures of oppression without the cause-and-effect emplotment of individual lives. It is not by accident, for instance, that a young, white Christian reader from Minnesota who asserts that “in fact, we’re all sisters, like [her letter writer] said” precedes a thoughtful, middle-aged black woman from Bowling Green reading a letter about harmful stereotypes of black men published in Ms., reflecting that “there’s always been this tension between black and white feminists.” It is in this way, in fact, that Lusztig’s documentary is less representative of 1970s feminism than performative of potentials for future feminist work. Because the letters were never published, she explains:

the project creates an opportunity to give voice to many kinds of letters that didn’t get a voice in the 70s, including letters from transgendered and gender-nonconforming readers, readers of color, working class readers, disabled readers, and other communities that may have felt marginalized by mainstream ‘70s feminism. So in that sense the reperformance can create an alternative or new history of ‘70s conversation that maybe wasn’t really heard at the time.”17

In keeping with the geographic premise of the film, the ethics of “embodied listening” across difference creates a needed space for conversations outside of the circuits of capital.

Lusztig’s concerns with form resonate with the agenda that film scholars now associate with signal works of feminist film theory of the 1970s. Feminist film theory developed in tandem with the broader feminist movement in the 1970s, but focused on using psychoanalysis to explain unconscious patterns in representations of women in male-dominated commercial film and television.18 Seeing gender oppression in realist narrative film structure itself (the typical division of labor between the man of action and the woman as bearer of his look), feminist film theorists like Laura Mulvey, Annette Kuhn, and Mary Anne Doane proposed developing avant-garde cinema forms that could break the spell of identification while expressing a feminist subjectivity. It was, in short, a proposal for revolutionising perception in the cinema as a means to women’s liberation. In her writing on the history of 1970s feminist film and theory, Shilyh Warren argues that on these grounds a small number of experimental, structuralist films became canonised as feminist film during this period, including Film About a Woman Who (Yvonne Rainer, 1974), Riddles of the Sphinx (Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, 1977), Semiotics of the Kitchen (Martha Rosler, 1975), and Jeanne Dielman (Chantal Akerman, 1975).

At the same time, many feminist consciousness-raising groups collaborated on “verité style” documentary films about women’s issues. In Warren’s characterisation, the psychoanalytic feminists tended to dismiss the work of these collectives as either naïve in their embrace of realist aesthetics or at least as less consequential than formally experimental films for liberating spectators’ perceptual capacities. This bias led to “the illusion of a consensus about what constituted ‘feminist films’ in the seventies,” with realist varieties that actually played for diverse audiences largely ignored.19  Julia Lesage (1978), writing against the majority, defended the practicality of feminist documentary film given the movement’s political goals and methods of organising.20 Realism was accessible, the issues were urgent, and with hindsight, feminist theorists including B. Ruby Rich, Alex Juhasz, and Diane Waldman and Janet Walker came to argue for recuperating self-reflexive documentary practices from psychoanalytic critique 21 However, recent post-colonial documentary scholars like Pooja Rangan (2017) have demonstrated that terms like “urgency” and “immediacy” can bring their own violence to bear upon processes of representation, a rhetorical move that becomes an explicit subject across Lusztig’s filmmaking.22

I see Yours in Sisterhood as offering a way to thread the needle between formalist and realist ways of thinking about feminist film, allowing for a reconsideration of 1970s feminist intellectual, organising, and cinema practices within the political currents of Lusztig’s intersectional feminism in 2018. The balance is in keeping with Lusztig’s development as an artist. Lusztig served as a teaching assistant under Yvonne Rainer, and credits the canon of 1960s-1970s experimental and avant-garde film with persuading her to become a filmmaker. In line with 1970s feminist film theory proposals for counter-cinema, Yours in Sisterhood refuses identification with a protagonist, action-driven narrative, and spectacular visual display. She uses elements of performance to foreground processes of listening, critical thinking, learning, and historical recuperation over dramatic immediacy. But Lusztig is also a key (though as of yet unnoted) part of “the Cambridge turn” in realist personal documentary and ethnographic film centered at Harvard University, a program in which she taught me twenty years ago.23 She worked in the participatory documentary tradition for her first feature For Beijing, with Love and Squalor (1997), 24 and cites the feminist consciousness raising collectives’ realist documentaries of the 1970s like The Woman’s Film (Judy Smith et al, 1971) and Joyce at 34 (Joyce Chopra, 1972) as primary influences on her recent work. In this ethic of practice, the long, slow process of piecing together themes and connections in film editing follows contingencies in the uncontrolled footage itself.

Australia-based visual anthropologist David MacDougall (2006)—perhaps the leading theorist behind this Cambridge turn—identified in realist nonfiction filmmaking techniques a method for researching affective sensations, a “performative approach” to cinema, in his terms, focused on “the presentation of objects and the [viewer’s mental] reenactment of experiences in the world.”25. MacDougall here meant to argue that ethnographic film in the vein of Jean Rouch and John Marshall constituted a transcultural, humanist model for exploring culture and the feeling of everyday life not open to those who wrote ethnographies or filmed sit-down interviews. Lusztig shares with this tradition a commitment to filming moments of contingency that attend to the sensibilities of actual people and landscapes in which they reside, albeit always with a skepticism about “clicks” of recognition and humanist identification across cultural difference.

But Lusztig’s cinema, while performative, nonfiction, and centered on questions of identification, is no participatory ethnography of the everyday. Her performative methods, rather, lead her films to connect patterns of erasure in memory and archives to institutions of systemic violence. In Lusztig’s post-2000 films, filmed, documentary records emphasize the impossibility of transcultural experience rather than present as evidence for mental reenactment elsewhere, especially when subjects avoid the camera, misinform the filmmaker, or never surface. It is better situated to interrogate power. Embodied listening, moreover, avoids the ethical difficulties inherent in extractive documentary filmmaking practices (the problematic scenario in which the worse it is for subjects, the better for the film) and long-term, intrusive engagements with individual subjects. Yours in Sisterhood features brief moments of reading rather than long takes of being. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that Yours in Sisterhood features becoming through reading, a performative technique unique among the Cambridge filmmakers. Lusztig’s documentary practice, in this regard, has come more over time to resemble Rainer’s, which contests what she called “the tyranny of a form that creates the expectation of a continuous answer to ‘what will happen next?’” by foregrounding language, reading, and performance.26 In Yours in Sisterhood, likewise, it is staged moments of recording through which subjects participate in producing contingent, affective responses to the social world, a documentary strategy attuned to and suited for creating ethical time, space, and conversation within an environment always already suffused with cameras and screens.


  1. Jane O’Reilly, “The Housewife’s Moment of Truth,” New York, 20 December 1971, http://nymag.com/news/features/46167/.
  2. Amy Erdman Farrell, Yours in Sisterhood: Ms. Magazine and the Promise of Popular Feminism (Chapel Hill: U. of North Carolina Press, 1998), p. 36.
  3. See, for instance, Lusztig’s “Radical Possibilities” workshop on feminist filmmaking hosted by Union Docs in New York City in September of 2018, amongst many other events: https://uniondocs.org/event/2018-09-07-radical-possibilities/#1477608256488-ac7d3d1a-ae9084d0-801eee50-80f5.
  4. Megan Moodie, “Handmade Feminism: Irene Lusztig’s Yours in Sisterhood,Los Angeles Review of Books, 11 May 2018, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/handmade-feminism-irene-lusztigs-yours-in-sisterhood/#!.
  5. Elena Lazic, “Irene Lusztig: ‘To me, conflict is as important as empathy,’” Seventh Row, 14 March 2018, https://seventh-row.com/2018/03/14/irene-lusztig-yours-in-sisterhood/.
  6. Stella Bruzzi, New Documentary New York: Routledge, 2006, p. 185.
  7. Farrell, p. 35
  8. Farrell, p. 34
  9. The pamphlet sent from Ms. to potential advertisers described the magazine’s readers as follows: “Among the women in magazine audiences cited here, the Ms. reader ranks first in youth (18-34), in household income, professional/managerial status, education, and full-time employment. She is married (68.6 percent) and has multiple bank accounts, stock certificates, and credit cards. Among the audiences covered, she is the most likely to live in the central city and the suburbs, and in A & B counties. In sum, she is young, affluent, well-schooled, well-positioned, and in the center of things—the emerging ‘new woman’ of the American marketplace.” Quoted from Farrell, p. 88.
  10. Farrell, p. 45
  11. Megan Moodie, “Handmade Feminism: Irene Lusztig’s Yours in Sisterhood,Los Angeles Review of Books, 11 May 2018, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/handmade-feminism-irene-lusztigs-yours-in-sisterhood/#!.
  12. Irene Lusztig, Email to the author, 10 June 2018.
  13. See Irene Lusztig, “The Samantha Smith Project,” Komsomol Films, http://komsomolfilms.com/the-samantha-smith-project/
  14. See especially Lisa Cartwright, Moral Spectatorship: Technologies of Voice and Affect in Postwar Representations of the Child (Durham: Duke U. Press, 2008) for a thorough and compelling use of the concept of intersubjectivity in film analysis.
  15. Irene Lusztig, 2018-9, “Listening Across Difference: Feminist Conversation, Sisterhood, and the ‘70s,” part of the unpublished collection Expansive Reflections: Returning to the Feminism of the 1970s, edited by Shilyh Warren and Kimberly Lamm, p. 7.
  16. Lusztig, 2018-9, p. 8-10.
  17. Jennifer Shearman, “Interview: Irene Lusztig,” DISPATCH Feminist Moving Image, 10 January 2018, https://www.dispatchfmi.com/single-post/2018/01/21/INTERVIEW-IRENE-LUSZTIG.
  18. Laura Mulvey’s influential essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” articulates the gist of the psychoanalytic argument. To recap, Mulvey applied Lacan’s concept of the “mirror stage” of psychosocial development, in which the male toddler first recognises his image in a mirror but overestimates his physical abilities, to the condition of the heteronormative male spectator of narrative film. The conventions of continuity editing functioned to hide from the spectator’s consciousness the look of the camera at the actors, enabling the male spectator to look at the bodies on screen as a voyeur. Absent accountability, he misrecognised self in the larger than life male protagonist, much like the infant looking in the mirror. (Mis)identification with film actors was regressive (a pre-linguistic form of attachment) and narcissistic. It sapped the spectator’s will for political engagement outside the theater and blunted empathy for the struggles of actual people. Within narrative cinema’s gendered division of labor, female bodies functioned as image commodities that spurred male protagonists to action. Protagonists reaffirmed their masculinity through violence, sexual conquest, and the refusal of grief—qualities incompatible with social equality across genders. Under these conditions, Mulvey and other feminist film theorists argued, realism must be understood as an ideological effect of narrative construction beholden to the anxieties of the male psyche, and not a property inherent in photographic technologies. Realism and identification were structural problems to overcome on the way to liberated consciousness, not tools for feminists to use. See Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16:3, 1 October, 1975, p. 6-18.
  19. Shilyh Warren, “By, For, and About: The ‘Real’ Problem in the Feminist Film Movement,” Mediascape 4 (Fall 2008): p. 5, http://www.tft.ucla.edu/mediascape/Fall08_Warren.html.
  20. Julia Lesage, “The Political Aesthetics of the Feminist Documentary Film,” Quarterly Review of Film Studies, 3:4, (1978), p. 507-523.
  21. B. Ruby Rich, Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement (Durham: Duke U. Press, 1998); Alexandra Juhasz, “They Said We Were Trying to Show Reality—All I Want to Show Is My Video: The Politics of the Realist Feminist Documentary,” Collecting Visible Evidence, edited by Jane Gaines and Michael Renov 
(Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota Press, 1999); Diane Waldman and Janet Walker, Feminism and Documentary (Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota Press, 1999).
  22. Pooja Rangan, Immediations (Durham: Duke U. Press, 2017).
  23. Film scholar Scott MacDonald (2013) identified what he called “the Cambridge turn” in his 400-page monograph on American ethnographic film and personal documentary, which focused on the Visual and Environmental Studies Department and Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University. Though a longtime instructor in this program who made internationally recognised personal documentary films, Lusztig is not mentioned in the book. This is partly because Lusztig’s time as a student and teacher in this program predated the period of MacDonald’s research, but it is also the case that the style of filmmaking she developed does not easily fit within the paradigms of sensory ethnographic film in the vein of Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Ilisa Barbash, Noelle Stout, Pacho Velez, Verena Paravel, J.P. Sniadecki, etc. or personal documentaries like those of Ross McElwee, Nina Davenport, Robb Moss, and Alfred Guzzetti. Recognising her contribution to American documentary form in part motivates this article. Scott MacDonald, American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn (Berkeley: U. of California Press, 2013).
  24. Lusztig’s first feature, For Beijing with Love and Squalor (1997), is a conventional participatory ethnography of subjects who are performers, in this case, young men from Beijing who aspire to be heavy metal rock stars. Shot intimately with a “Hi8 camera and a microphone mounted on a chopstick in the summer of 1996,” Lusztig wrote, the film follows two disillusioned and precarious male college students, Jianfeng and Weiqing, through a maze of nightclubs, concerts, and late-night conversations about the family, love, and culture in China between Tiananmen Square and the rise of the Internet. See: http://komsomolfilms.com/for-beijing-with-love-squalor/.
  25. David MacDougall, The Corporeal Image: Film, Ethnography, and the Senses (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton U. Press, 2006), p. 272
  26. Yvonne Rainer, “A Likely Story,” in A Woman Who… Essays, Interviews, Scripts, by Yvonne Rainer (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 138.

About The Author

D. Andy Rice is a media theorist and nonfiction filmmaker who researches the impact of digital technologies on discourses about documentary ethics, practices, and aesthetics. His current book project, Moments of Truth: Documentary Camerawork and Reenactment in Digital Culture, analyzes reenactment performance in documentary film. He also Co-Produced, shot, and edited Spirits of Rebellion: Black Independent Cinema from Los Angeles (2016, 101 min.) on the LA Rebellion film movement.

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