Here’s Why 'Regarding Susan Sontag' Is A Worthwhile Watch

Archita Kashyap - 65 weeks ago

Learning about the life and contributions of this influential American writer who stood by dissent has lessons for us all. The documentary makes for essential viewing especially in the context of present day India.

(A still from Regarding Susan Sontag)

Susan Sontag embodies a reasonable, critical voice of dissent that would almost always rise against majoritarian and popular opinion at times of crisis. She is the kind of American woman that set a path of courage and independence in all aspects of life, influencing the American woman in multiple ways. Her biggest admirers have often turned against her, becoming disillusioned with her critical essays as she grew older. But Sontag stood by her opinions irrespective of negative reactions and adversarial responses. Regarding Susan Sontag by Nancy Kates captures this seminal thinker and influential critic as she would have liked it - focused entirely on a lifetime of her work. 

Born in the Thirties to Jewish parents, Susan Sontag had a childhood filled with displacement and frequent changes in residence. She began undergraduate studies at Columbia University but switched mid-way to Chicago because of its faculty and teaching - a hub of America’s strongest intellectuals and academics shaping progressive thought. Ever since she began college, Sontag found herself in her writing. She began writing essays, each one clearly expressive and argumentative, reflecting her thoughts on the form and development of American society and polity. Sontag is best known for her non-fiction books like On Photography, Illness as Metaphor and Against interpretation. She wrote a few novels, In America being the most recognised, and also the one that faced a controversy of plagiarism. But running through Sontag’s list of writings and work doesn’t do justice to her contribution. She grew on to become a political activist, staunchly left liberal. Her disillusionment with metamorphosis in American politics, particularly with the change in the Democratic party, is evident in her later years. In more ways than one, pivot towards free trade, laissez faire and industrial growth that became the trademark of the Clinton years, were the very factors that Sontag stood against. Speaking against the popular tide has been her forte for decades prior to this phase too. For instance, she drew sharp criticism in 1967 when she compared Western White Civilisation to cancer in human history. Writing in the Partisan Review, Sontag stated, “The white race is the cancer of human history. It is the white race and it alone - it’s ideologies and inventions - which eradicates autonomous civilisations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself.”

(Joseph Brodsky, nobel laureate, and Susan Sontag on the day when they both were inducted into the Academy of Arts and Letters)

Unlike most intellectuals, writers and scholars, Sontag actually placed herself on ground to study war and its consequences on people. She travelled to Vietnam War, before writing extensively on the various ways that it influenced American people as well as the devoted people of Vietnam. Towards the end of her life, Sontag travelled to Sarajevo to look at the Bosnian War. What she witnessed here left a deep mark on her, making her a vocal advocate against foreign armed intrusions by US led forces and NATO. In fact, when 9/11 shook America at its foundations, she drew a lot of ire by calling it a ‘monstrous dose of reality’ when she wrote a critical comment in the New Yorker. According to Sontag, a push by American elected representatives and officials that ‘everything is ok’ was fooling the common public. In hindsight, Sontag’s observations and criticism rings true to public policy and foreign policy wisdom of the present. Constant policing through alliances and military action by the USA on the global front has led to terrorism and violence targeted against the nation and its people for quite some time. 

(Ace photographer Annie Leibovitz called Susan Sontag a friend but never a partner)

Perhaps Sontag’s tendency to actively participate in events as they happen, made her an attractive partner to both men and women. Sontag was married for eight years to Phillip Reiff, with whom she has a son, David. Reiff is a scholar in his own right with research and publications of huge value. Later in life, it has emerged that Sontag might have co-written his Freud: The Mind of the Moralist. At 55, she met Annie Leibovitz, the world’s most renowned celebrity photographer. In what might seem like an incongruent match, Sontag and Leibovitz were partners for 15 years, travelling across the world and sharing some of their most vivid experiences. In her book, A Photographer’s Life: 1999 to 2005 Leibovitz published personal photos from her collection of Susan, when she was battling cancer and special moments shared together while just living life. Leibovitz calls Sontag a friend, refusing to use the term partner. Their relationship was unique as much as it was private. Her photographs are her artistic, honest tribute to a friend that helped form her life in significant ways. 

(Director Nancy Kates during the premier of Regarding Susan Sontag at Tribeca Film Festival in 2014)

While exploring Susan Sontag’s entire life and written work will take considerable amounts of time, Nancy Kates’ award winning documentary Regarding Susan Sontag brings a succinct, intelligent and well-crafted portrait of this influential social thinker. Dissent is anathema to many in India today, despite our country’s legacy of opposition and argumentative opinions. Sontag’s ability to speak up and stand her ground is a lesson in the value of dissent for any civilised society. Kates interprets her life, through archival interviews, photos and footage and special interviews of authors and thinkers of Sontag, to present an image of a woman who helped her (and countless others) think for herself. It’s a definite watch for those who value engaging stories from the real world.

(Regarding Susan Sontag is currently playing on myNK)


Susan Sontag / Regarding Susan Sontag / Noel Burch / Lucinda Childs / Patricia Clarkson /Nancy Kates / Thinker / Feminist icon / On Photography / Illness as Metaphor / Against interpretation / HBO / Annie Leibovitz / Vietnam War / Bosnian War

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of The Film Hashery.

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