New-York-born writer, filmmaker, teacher and political activist Susan Sontag had no ordinary life. 10 years after her death, director Nancy Kates' documentary Regarding Susan Sontag (2014) has been nominated for the Best Documentary Feature at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival in Lower Manhattan. It is dominating European screens this summer, screening at Edinburgh's Cameo Theatre, the Athens International Gay & Lesbian Festival, as well as at Switzerland's Pink Apple Film Festival, to name a few. It is the first full-length exploration of Sontag's life, and provides a nuanced exploration of a captivating and often provocative figure.
Alongside her work as a political activist, Sontag is often considered to be the foremost female intellectual of her day. Her seminal essays On Photography (1977) and Illness as Metaphor (1978), for example, are still widely read and discussed; the critiques they put forward are almost prophetic.
Her argument that photographic images have established within us a "chronic voyeuristic relation to the world" resonates all the more in our image-saturated society, where the proliferation of social media outlets allows us to use photographs to carefully curate how we would like our lives to be presented to other people. Meanwhile, Illness as Metaphor, written while Sontag was being treated for breast cancer, vilifies the way in which we shroud illness in myth. At a time where - arguably more than ever before - we've become inundated with films that present us with saccharine and romanticised portrayals of both physical and mental illness, her observations still stand strong.
Regarding Susan Sontag provides insight into these intellectual pursuits. However, rather than glorifying her ideas and political activism while brushing her struggles and failings under the rug, Kates successfully sheds light on each of Sontag's various personas (the political provocateur, the outspoken intellectual, the closeted bisexual, the negligent mother) suggesting that they all feed into and inform each other.
There is no domineering narrator encouraging us to pass judgment on Sontag. Rather, the documentary is composed of archival footage of Sontag herself, as well as accounts from friends, family, lovers and detractors. We see one of Sontag's lovers discussing Sontag's first work, The Benefactor - "it's a terrible novel." Another candidly stating that she often felt like an "interlude" in Sontag's life.
Following the footage of Sontag talking about her staging of Waiting for Godot (1993) in war-torn Sarajevo, an ever-wry Fran Lebowitz says: "Military action. That's what stops genocide, by the way. Not productions of Waiting for Godot."
Kates is undoubtedly a Sontag fan. However, the documentary's strength lies in that it does not reduce her to an idealised depiction; rather, it explores her through a critical lens and on a more personal level, allowing the viewer to reconcile the disparity between her public and private personas. In footage from a public interview, we see a forthright and blunt Sontag advising us: "Don't allow yourself to be patronised, condescended to - which if you are a woman, happens, and will continue to happen, all your lives. Don't take shit. Tell the bastards off." This is countered by readings from Sontag's personal journal entries that explore topics as fraught as her feelings of inadequacy, the horrors of war, her struggles with her sexuality - "I am just becoming aware of how guilty I feel being queer", and her frustration with the world around her.
It is an honest portrayal, sometimes brutally so. But it is this that humanises an often intimidatingly unapproachable figure. In interweaving Sontag's work as an activist with her intellectual explorations and her personal life, Kates removes Sontag from the pedestal we often place her on. It is this that is the main strength of Regarding Susan Sontag. The end of the documentary leaves us with a lasting and fully-fledged portrait of a person in all their achievements, struggles and flaws: in all their endearing and exasperating glory.
Words: Catherine Karellis
Photography: Chester Higgins Jr.