Portrait of a Powerful Woman: "Regarding Susan Sontag"

in 17th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival

by Mo Abdi

Regarding Susan Sontag Portrait of a Woman

Sontag (1933-2004), has been the subject of many articles, but Nancy Kates in this film- “Regarding Susan Sontag”- tries to paint the portrait of a complicated- and of course successful- woman through the people who were very close to her; from her sister to her son, and a few different partners. As a result the viewer is brought face to face with lots of new information about Sontag, much of which has never been heard before.

The most interesting point is that this film does not seem to want to portray Sontag as a “perfect woman”: We hear a lot about her bad behaviour with her partners and we are given scathingly honest reviews from those close to her, one of Sontag’s partners candidly remarking, “Her first novel was awful!”

At the same time, the film uncovers a powerful woman who was not scared of relationships with men or women; a fighter who could beat cancer, when doctors told her she had less than 6 months to live.

Where did she find this strength? The film poses the question and hints at several answers, but in her own words: “I’m powerful because I’m in love”.


The Film opens expressing Sontag’s political opinions, but very soon it is her far more intimate personal life that dominates the voice of the picture.

Personally, I totally agree with this approach as I think any kind of definite political point of view is so rooted in the times, and quickly erodes or develops as the world changes.

Of course, Sontag was a real political activist, but if we really look deeply at her views, what we find is intellectual activism against Capitalism and War (I suppose sometimes she exaggerates, when the film touches on her trip to North Vietnam during the war).

This said, when we are exposed to the interplay between her political views and her outstanding reach and understanding of the arts, the result is great.

There is a magic at work when she is directing a play during the war in Sarajevo; “Waiting for Godot”. A metaphor about the situation of those people who experience war and wait for a miracle, Sontag rehearsed the play in hidden places in Sarajevo and mostly without lights.

Photography and Cinema

A multidisciplinary artist, Sontag was fascinated by photography and her book on the subject retains it’s freshness, and deftness which characterise Sontag and which the films grasps so well. Someone mentions in the film that she was one of the most photographed people of the 20th century. There is little doubt that Sontag knew about the power of photography, and it is evident she knew what she was doing. Perhaps to underscore this we are treated to some rare footage of PR master Andy Warhol taking her photograph.

The film uses Sontag’s interest in being front of the camera, to unlock a rare treasury of her photos, and those of some of the finest photographers of the twentieth century.

It is little wonder that she started to make films, though her first film (Duet for Cannibals- 1969) was not a critical success.

For someone concerned about her work as an artist, this disappointment bit deeply, coupled with the critical indifference her other filmic and initial literary efforts elicited seem an anathema to her great talents. Perhaps an irony considering Sontag’s standing as a first rate critic, and the themes explored in her phenomenal first collection of articles: ‘Against Interpretation’ (1966), include her most famous- and most important- article about critics and the arts.

The film tells Sontag’s story honestly and with the nuance and talent that we find in Sontag’s work herself. Of course there are important moments not covered, include Sontag as a film critic. Her stunning criticism on Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” is missing, but Kates has brought story to the screen in a balanced and successful way- bringing to light often hitherto unseen aspects to the life of a major figure in the arts of the twentieth century.

Mo Abdi