Regarding Susan Sontag
This video clip and director’s statement were submitted by Nancy Kates as part of the 2015 PEN World Voices Online Anthology. Kates is the producer and director of the film Regarding Susan Sontag, an in-depth look at Sontag’s life and work.
Nancy Kates’s event: Susan Sontag, Revisited
ABOUT THE FILM
Regarding Susan Sontag is an intimate and nuanced investigation into the life of one of the most provocative thinkers of the 20th century. Passionate and gracefully outspoken, Sontag became one of the most important literary and political figures of her generation. The film explores Sontag’s life through evocative images, archival materials, and accounts from friends, family, colleagues, and lovers, as well as her own writings, read by actress Patricia Clarkson. From early childhood to her last lover, Regarding Susan Sontag is a fascinating look at a towering cultural figure, whose works on photography, war, and illness continue to resonate today.
Regarding Susan Sontag is a deep, associative engagement with a serious subject, and one that raises more questions than it answers. The film is intended for a broad general audience, though we hope it will also bring fresh insights to those familiar with Sontag’s work. We would like it to inspire new audiences, young people, and others with only a cursory knowledge of Sontag as a cultural figure.
The film premiered at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, where it received a Special Jury Mention, and has since been shown in 90 festivals in over 30 countries. It had its broadcast premiere in December 2014, on HBO, and received rave reviews. Ms. Magazine named it one of 2014’s top ten feminist films, while critics called it “compelling” and “perceptive” (Stephen Holden, NY Times); “a stunning portrait” (Ally Derks, director of the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam); and “mesmerizing, thoughtful, provocative” (Times Herald-Record). The San Francisco Chronicle praised its “boldly evocative impressionist strokes that mirror the complexity of Sontag’s life and career.”
I was inspired to make a film about Susan Sontag because of my sadness at her passing. When she died in late 2004, I felt that an important voice had been silenced. Sontag intrigues me because of her internal contradictions, as well as the way in which she mirrors divides and conflicts in the culture. She was the foremost female intellectual of her day, and refused to be reduced to her gender, but was also perfectly willing to use her beauty and sensuality to advance her career. She wrote about low culture from a position within high culture, which was a radical act in the mid-1960s. Publicly, Sontag was the fierce, politically brave “dragon lady” of American letters; but in private, she was as confused and vulnerable as the next person. She was fascinating, complex, and difficult.
A few months after her death, I found myself having an argument with a colleague about whether Sontag had been a lesbian. Neither The New York Times nor the Los Angeles Times obituaries mentioned her same-sex relationships. For the national paper of record to make such an omission seemed, to many, to be homophobic, though it was likely done to protect her privacy. After this conversation, the idea of making a Sontag documentary hit me like a brick. But the task was daunting.
I have been interested in Susan Sontag for decades. Sontag represents the possibility of a committed life, an intellectual life, and a life of thinking and writing not defined by educational institutions. She certainly embodied an ideal for generations of female undergraduates: the zenith that none could equal but many aspired to. The film explores the contrast between the private, vulnerable Sontag and her self-assured public persona, and, above all, the ways in which Sontag did not wish to be seen. The film also comes from my obsession with books and writing—it is, in part, a reader’s tribute to a writer and the literary world.