“Left on Pearl” Review: Searing Documentary Reads Like a Heist Film
Updated: Dec 24, 2020
On March 8, 1971, at the burgeoning of the women’s liberation movement, several hundred young activists marched from an International Women’s Day rally at Boston Common into the city of Cambridge and ended up seizing a Harvard University building in the name of feminism. They called it “The Women’s Center.” The activists were young, spirited, and savvy, drawn to the feminist scene in Boston the way some activists are drawn to progressive Oakland today. They barricaded the doors, keeping watch against the frenzy of Harvard officials, police, and media attempting to draw them out for trespassing. But they endured – through freezing temperatures, protesters, sabotage tactics, and more – to take a stand and demand justice. Today, on another site, the Cambridge Women's Center, still holds ground in legacy of these radical actions as the longest continuously-operating space of its kind in the United States.
Last Tuesday night, exactly 45 years after this historic event, I had the opportunity to attend a special preview screening for supporters of Susan Rivo’s energizing documentary Left on Pearl, a heist-like account of the occupation from the voices of the very women – once degraded college students, newly liberated lesbians, or stultified homemakers – who took over 888 Memorial Drive calling for revolution. Although the film is not yet finished and still being edited, it’s clear Left on Pearl will be a fun, moving sisters-doing-it-for-themselves anthem. Rivo’s work is an achievement of found footage (many of the images painstakingly gathered from library archives and even rescued from trash), fully immersing us into an era of upheaval that feels remarkably familiar given today’s political climate. With the aid of a revving ’60s blues-rock soundtrack, Rivo deftly interweaves reels of 1960s and 1970s feminist activism with dozens of modern interviews, painting a rich portrait of not only the oppressive culture that led to the women’s liberation movement, but what made Cambridge and Boston so integral to its beginnings.
Despite the narrational complications of telling a feel-good story from hindsight, the tension Rivo is able to build is nothing short of gripping. She and editor Iftach Shavit take a 10-day event that would have been otherwise lost to newspaper blurbs and magnifies it so that we’re not just watching a historical documentary, but an honest-to-goodness caper. Often humorous, the film’s best moments are found in the juxtapositions between the women’s stodgy, tweedy opponents and their plucky solutions to the various attempts to subvert their efforts. It may have been a bloodless battle, but to hear these anecdotes from the actual players who helped ignite a national movement is powerful, as though the filmmakers unearthed the very box from which Pandora raised hell.
Even more importantly, for those who scoff at Black Lives Matter or the modern campus protest movement, Left on Pearl may remind them that change does come from that place of deep bravery, righteous indignation, and fearless optimism. In fact, without that foolish, “fuck it all” leap into the abyss, my experience of this world as a woman might be a very different one in 2016.
Before the screening hundreds of women (many of them now into their seventies and eighties) gathered at a private theater just two miles from where the action took place nearly half a century ago, reminiscing about the work they or their friends did to usher feminism into the modern conversation. Women who had been told their education was a waste and that they might as well marry and have children. Women who had been resigned to life as the silent partners of prestigious university faculty. Women who had been pushed out of low-income housing to make way for Harvard’s further encroachment into their already burdened communities. For me, witnessing this was akin to attending a college reunion of people who graduated from your alma mater a lifetime before you even enrolled, before you were even born. These women created the second-wave of feminism that I have benefited from all my life. What they have forgotten, I have yet to learn. And there is still much work to be done.