Feminist re-voicings in
Yours in Sisterhood

by Tessa Dwyer

In a scene towards the end of Irene Lusztig’s 2018 documentary Yours in Sisterhood, a woman in Cincinnati, Ohio stands facing the camera as she reads out a letter sent to the first American mainstream feminist magazine Ms.. In the letter, a Ms. reader from 1977 argues that racial divides within the feminist movement must be put aside in order to focus effectively on the crisis of gender. Afterwards, the Cincinnati woman pauses, still looking directly into the camera, until an offscreen voice asks her: “What does it feel like to have those words in your body”? It feels “weird and hard,” she responds, "to be repeating this, because I don’t agree with it.” She describes the experience as “a little bit violent, actually.” Structurally, the scene varies little from others within this slowly unfolding film, all involving similar acts of letter reading, yet small variances speak pointedly about issues of difference, identification and belonging. The exchange in this scene seems to sum up the film’s complex form of address and central encounter with vocal strangeness.

Letter reader in Cincinnati, Ohio. Offscreen, the filmmaker asks a question.
Letter reader in Mason City, Iowa. A letter is read using signing and an interpreter.

After extensive research at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, reading through thousands of letters sent in to Ms. by readers, from its launch in 1972 up until 1980, Lusztig curated a sample and then spent three years travelling across the country, visiting those locations from where the selected letters came. In each small or large town, a local resident reads the letter to camera, aided by a teleprompter. Most of the letters uncovered were never published and only occasionally are letters traced back to their writers. For the most part, those in front of the camera revoice letters written from women unknown to them, from decades past, offering a strangely effecting, intimate engagement with both absence and presence, time and feminist historiography.

A letter is read by its original writer, Yvonne. Again, a letter is read by its original writer, Claudia.

The vocal otherness that this film continually rehearses springs from its epistolary format of people reading aloud other people’s letters or, in certain cases, their own, from years back. In doing so, the letter readers are made to embody alien, unfamiliar and/or distanced words, and the effect is surprisingly unsettling. These acts of re-speaking make the past newly present, registering continuities as well as points of remove and disconnect. In an interview by Megan Moodie, Luztig comments that the “drama of the film is in the present and in the ways that readers negotiate with the past in real time.”[1] [open endnotes in new page] Exploring “history in the present tense,” as Luztig puts it, a confronting scene involves a letter from Greensboro, North Carolina, which speaks of Ku Klux Klan paraphernalia on display at a public library, as well as Klansmen themselves. Noting how the Klan recently took part in a public parade celebrating Trump’s 2016 election win, the letter reader insists such issues are not merely ‘in the past’, but rather, are firmly located in the present.

A letter is read from Greensboro, North Carolina, where Klan paraphernalia was on display in the public library. Letter reader from Greensboro who talks about the Klan in 2016 parading for Trump.

Those who read the letters stand or sit outside, on streets, in parks or yards, in front of houses, buildings, dwellings. They give these letters new life, an airing, opening and offering them up to new ears, audiences, addressees. And yet the readers also speak to us from their place, the place from whence the letter also issues. The camera lingers on outdoor spaces and the roads that connect them. This marking and sharing of locations holds much significance. In such a sparse film, it becomes doubly present. Lusztig talks of her interest in a public, shared feminism, as she brings to light archived letters, personal and intimate despite their address to unknown readers and future feminisms.[2]

By making cinema strange and inviting its deconstruction through documentary, Lusztig insists upon this process as a vital means of expanding the feminist project: making strange, inviting scrutiny and double takes. Drawing attention to the embodied, situated nature of speech, she tunes into voices past and mostly as yet unheard. Putting other people’s words into new mouths, she tests distinctions between the written and the spoken, between letters and cine-writing.

The effect reminds me of initial reactions to speech in cinema as something uncanny during the transition period from Silents to Talkies, especially when dubbing or voice doubling was involved. Jorge Luis Borges once described dubbing as a “malignant artifice” involving “the arbitrary insertion of another voice and of another language.”[3] For Borges, “worse than dubbing, worse than the substitution that dubbing implies, it is the awareness of a substitution or deception.”

Although in Lusztig’s film, the words we hear are voiced by those we see on screen, with no deception involved, substitution occurs nevertheless; readers stand in for writers and speaking bodies fill in for those who are absent, activating their thoughts and subjectivity as well as their voice. Indeed, this substitution is central to the film’s rationale and Lusztig’s project.

For Borges, dubbing points to the inherent limitations or decadence of cinema as an “art of combination.”[4] In Yours in Sisterhood, cinema’s proclivity for audio-visual combination is handled with care and generosity. Its inherent split between sound and image is put to work, engendering new forms of listening, witnessing and engaging. Lusztig’s film works the split, making us aware of film and writing alike as modes of mediated disembodiment and letters as urgent missives, reading as writing, gendered voice, of cinema as language; personal yet public, continually evolving and always undergoing forms of translation. Lusztig ponders such modes of meaning-making in order to revisit feminist voicings, enabling us to hear voice anew precisely due to layers of mediation, recombination and substitution.

To an extent, the letter reading at the heart of Yours in Sisterhood is reminiscent of the "playback techniques" common to musicals where sound recording is primary, with scenes built around pre-recorded songs to which actors mould their lips (see Siefert 1995).[5] Yet, instead of alien voices fitting themselves to on-screen bodies and lips–as occurs in ‘normal’ dubbing–those who read out the letters must mould their bodies, faces, expressions and lips to match the words of a stranger, or words made strange. The film enacts a form of dubbing in reverse. This undubbing produces visceral effects: a faltering or stumbling over words, feelings of return or foreshadowing, simultaneously moments of continuity and disjunction; at points, a sense of violence or intrusion.

Tensions emerge as Lustzig holds the camera on her subjects, stretching the present and producing uncomfortable pauses and silences, looks away, sighs and gestures; we see the body talking, unshackled from voice. After the letter readers have placed themselves in the service of words not their own, a transition occurs. As they contemplate this act, a shift occurs as they begin speaking on their terms, in their words. Our attention relaxes as their voices settle back into a comfortable habitus, at home and at ease. As audiences, we hear and listen differently when this me-voice speaks. We cease scrutinizing the image and holding it up for dissection. We fall back upon an easy identification with this unified body-voice presence, content to listen and be spoken to.

Yet, as Michel Chion observes, voice conventions on screen are far from ‘natural’ and any sense of unification is illusionary, disavowing sound cinema’s very severing of voice from body and sound from image, each traditionally inscribed on different surfaces. The “more you think about synchronization,” states Chion, “the more aware you can become.. of the arbitrariness of this convention, which tries to present as a unity something that from the outset ‘doesn’t stick together’.”[6] For Chion as well as Rick Altman, Mary Ann Doane and Mikhail Yamplosky, dubbing is neither anomalous nor degenerate; rather, it constitutes sound cinema’s very core.[7]

But just as we are apt to forget the mediated, severed nature of screen voice as soon as these acts of letter reading are over, a final letter is read in voice-over as the camera fixes upon a remand centre in Indianapolis, Indiana, surrounded by barbed wire fencing. We are starkly reminded of bodies behind walls, out-of-sight and unheard. Here, the cinema’s schism between body and voice is foregrounded, reverberating against other forms of social and political alienation. Lusztig’s carefully staged re-voicings of Ms. magazine letters contributes an introspective and nuanced take on feminism and society, past and present, always prioritising whilst making strange filmmaking as a form of giving voice.