New Susan Sontag Documentary
Filmmaker Nancy Kates evokes the late essayist's forceful intellect and complicated character.
It was a day much like any other in her Berkeley office in the Zaentz Media Center when Nancy Kates was struck with the idea of making a documentary about the late essayist and novelist Susan Sontag. “I went home and I had seven of the 16 books she published while she was alive,” Kates recalls. “That said something to me.”
Sontag was a public intellectual, a now-endangered species (the Internet notwithstanding), whose passion and insight encompassed global politics, popular culture, individual and national responsibility, and philosophies of art. The author of groundbreaking essays like “Notes on Camp” and seminal books like On Photography welcomed controversy, and Kates’ extensive collection reflected not just Sontag’s status as a principled voice but as a touchstone.
“When I was a college student [in the early 1980s], if you were curious and young and female, you were interested in her, and I certainly was,” Kates says. “She was always someone I wanted to know—what she was doing, what she was writing, what she was interested in, what she was thinking about. That continued for 20, 30 years.”
Kates’ incisive and textured documentary, Regarding Susan Sontag, commemorates its subject’s once-central place in American discourse while grappling with her complicated and contradictory nature. In her essays and in interviews, Sontag somehow managed to be bracingly frank while maintaining certain masks and misperceptions.
“I didn’t know she was a lesbian when I was 20,” Kates says. “I just knew that I was a lesbian when I was 20. So it’s interesting I looked up to her. She was an unidentified queer person who mostly slept with women. She would object vehemently to being called a lesbian. She had sort of a French idea about sexuality, that you don’t label it. She also lied about her sexuality, which made telling her story in a film, and being truthful to the reality of her life, even harder.”
Even those of us who disdain tabloid journalism must confess to a fascination with the private lives of prominent figures. Kates, a Boston native with an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a master’s from Stanford’s renowned documentary program, has a talent for probing the shadows and piercing the secrets of extraordinary people with sensitivity and honesty. Her previous feature-length documentary, Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin (2003), is a revelatory portrait of the gay, overlooked civil rights pioneer who organized the 1963 March on Washington, among numerous other accomplishments. By turns moving, infuriating, and inspiring, the film garnered a slew of awards on the festival circuit and was broadcast nationally on PBS.
Kates’ new film is primed to receive a similar level of exposure, although it arrives at a time when the mainstream media—from supposedly serious talk shows to the op-ed pages of major newspapers—are more interested in fake scandals and transparently false arguments than challenging discourse. Regarding Susan Sontag screens this month in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on the heels of its Bay Area premiere in June in the Frameline festival, and in anticipation of an HBO broadcast in December coinciding with the 10th anniversary of Sontag’s death.
From the outset, Kates was determined to avoid presenting Sontag’s life and work through a prosaic mix of talking-head interviews and archival footage. The challenge, of course, was conjuring creative ways of conveying a life of the mind.
“Anytime you profile a writer, you have a problem,” the East Bay filmmaker notes. “We wanted to find a visual metaphor for being a writer, which is solitary and [involves] being inside your head, and not someone sitting at a typewriter. But how do you get in someone’s head?”
Kates employed a variety of strategies, from collages by the experimental filmmaker Lewis Klahr to images constructed of animated letters (inspired by the illustrations in a children’s book she came across in Prague about the Golem, an inanimate figure in Jewish lore who comes to life) to photos and objects filmed in water. The combined effect is to evoke the malleability and evolution of identity as well as the ephemeral nature of ideas.
“Sontag had very strong ideas about how to tell the truth in writing,” Kates declares. “She said she preferred the form of truth embodied in fiction. She’s a little like any trickster writer. She’s messing with us.”
Regarding Susan Sontag is an unusually layered documentary that openly acknowledges that its subject was a moving target. At the same time, the film is unambiguous in asserting the importance of critical thought, intelligent debate, public positions, and self-reflection. It presents Sontag’s oeuvre, which included directing a film (Promised Lands) in Israel in 1974 and Waiting for Godot on a Sarajevo stage in 1993, as the still-vital work of a writer who engaged with the world.
“The film is, in a way, a loving look back at a lost world, but one that I also hope is relevant to now,” Kates says. “Sontag’s discussions of war and terrorism, and illness and photography, haven’t gone away. Young people need role models, and she was certainly in some undefined way a role model for several generations, and could be for people today if they knew enough about her.”
Kates, who is rigorous yet self-effacing, and loathes presumptuousness, catches herself. “I should say I didn’t know enough about her when I was 20,” she adds, “though I thought I did.”
The East Bay component of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival runs Aug. 1–7 at the California Theatre in Berkeley and Aug. 8–10 at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland. Regarding Susan Sontag screens 3:15 p.m. July 28 at CineArts (Palo Alto), 2 p.m. Aug. 2 at the Castro Theatre (San Francisco), and 11:30 a.m. Aug. 3 at the California Theatre (Berkeley). For more information, visit www.SFJFF.org.