In Regarding Susan Sontag, a deliciously dark and brooding documentary about the fiercely private but publicly fierce writer and activist, filmmaker Nancy D. Kates shares lesser-known details of Sontag’s personal life. She uses interviews with past lovers and close friends, archival footage and excerpts from Sontag’s most culturally resonant and prescient works, including On Photography and Illness as a Metaphor.
The Ms. Blog chatted with Kates about the film’s inspiration, Sontag’s fear of labels and her legacy as a public intellectual and literary force.
What inspired you to make this film?
We had the idea not long after she died [in 2004]. It’s taken a long time and it’s a very complicated film. When I had the idea, I thought, “I better get on this.” Somebody else will make the film if I don’t get cracking.
How extensive was your knowledge of Sontag prior to making the film? Is there a Sontag work that resonates with you in particular?
I had a little knowledge; I thought I knew more than I did. Certainly I have been reading her most of my life. For a couple of years of the project, we had a little Susan Sontag reading group. For one our meetings, we read her play Alice In Bed [about Alice James, sister of William and Henry James]. Alice in Bed is not mentioned in the film, but I could do a whole essay about that. It’s one of [Sontag’s] strongest feminist statements. Alice James was probably as brilliant as her brilliant brothers, but because she was a woman in the 19th century she wasn’t really allowed to flourish in the same way that they were. But what Sontag wrote about in that play was that Alice James represented this genius woman who was completely prevented from fulfilling her genius.
Sontag was so private, especially regarding her sexuality. Was it difficult to find people close to her who were willing to open up?
There are certain people that I spoke with who really needed to talk to someone because they had had a fight with her or a falling out and they felt very unresolved about it. For some, it was therapeutic.
Alice Kaplan [author of Dreaming in French: the Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag and Angela Davis] who appears in the film and was an adviser to us, said, “Look, Sontag sold her papers to UCLA and there are … hundreds of pages about relationships that went sour with women. She didn’t hold back.” I have no illusion that she would have been okay with some of stuff in the film. If she were alive, she would’ve been adamant that the stuff not come out. [But] I don’t want people to see this as only a discussion of her sexuality, because I think it’s a lot more than that: She didn’t want to be put in the box of her sexuality. She wanted to be private and she didn’t want to be labeled.
What do you think draws women to Sontag?
I think that women tend to really resonate with the film because here was Susan Sontag, who got to do what she wanted to do, and so many women [of that generation] didn’t get to be doing work that was totally fulfilling to them, because of their gender. Sontag was, like, “I’m not buying any of that. I’m gonna do what I want.” I think she can be very inspiring to people.
What do you think is her legacy?
We want [the audience] to answer that question. One of the nicest things that somebody said to me after [seeing] the film was, “Maybe her greatest work of art was her life.” I thought that was really beautiful. I hope she’ll be remembered as an essayist and that people will continue to talk about her ideas about photography and war and illness. We still don’t have enough women who are able to be themselves in a very out way, or to be dissenting. And I’m primarily talking about political dissension, but Sontag was [also] dissenting in terms of the role that women were expected to play at that time.
She almost wanted to be this genderless brain in her writing, but she also wanted to be perceived as this glamorous beautiful woman. She was always very contradictory.
Regarding Susan Sontag premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on HBO.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images/HBO.