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Categories: Interviews

American director Nancy Kates came to Sheffield Doc/Fest with her new film Regarding Susan Sontag. The film takes us through the life of the late writer, with testimonies from close friends and footage of Susan Sontag herself.

We talked to the director about the inspiration behind the film, and its place in today’s society.

Why did you decide to make a film about Susan Sontag?

I was always interested in her, and I was particularly interested in her when I was about 20. After she died I was really sad, and I didn’t really know why. I felt that her voice had been silenced, and that we sort of needed her. A few months after she died I got into a mild disagreement with someone about whether or not she had been a lesbian. I showed my friend that the gay press was upset that the New York Times and the LA Times did not say anything about her same-sex relationships in the official obituaries. After the argument I went back to my office, and somewhere between her office and my office which was right next door I thought ‘Oh I should make a film about Susan Sontag.’

I had half of her books and I thought, this is a good idea for me. It’s a very daunting subject and it took a long time to make the film. I think she was a very important figure in American culture and I also thought I better do this before someone else does it.

In some way this felt like Everest, this huge project; she was very complicated and had a difficult life to document. I actually hope there are other films about Susan Sontag, I just didn’t want to be the fourth one. And there’s a limited amount of footage out there because she’s not alive.

How did you go about choosing the footage that went into the film?

We did tons of research. There was never enough footage of her on camera, but there was too much material. The books, the diaries, there are hundreds of notebooks at UCLA. So, when somebody is no longer alive, there is never quite enough material, but there is way too much material in her case as well.

The film goes back and forth chronologically, which works very well to tell her story. How did you put it together?

I actually wanted to start with her death, which when we started in 2006 was the most recent thing in everyone’s mind. The film was much less chronological during the editing process and people found it confusing. It was more thematic. I wanted it to be non-chronological. Ideas are associative but biography is linear.

We are born, we have lots of experiences and we die.

We did a tiny bit of looping in the final version of the film and the biggest leap is to go from 9/11 to when she was 15. Things moved around, and in the end we had to make it more chronological so you could figure out what the hell is going on.

There are collages in the film that seem to carry metaphorical messages. Can you elaborate on those?

We spent a lot of time trying to create a visual language for the film. The collages are sort of separate from the other stuff and they were commissioned. Lewis Klahr, an experimental filmmaker from LA made those six collages. It’s sort of a deconstruction of the film, it’s like you put the film through a blender. The idea was that it would give you a little bit of a sense of pause while you were looking at something that was so interesting and weird that you would be transformed in some way. They are little films within the film.

You also play around a lot with photographs, for example a photo in a bottle, pouring sand over it.

She was obsessed with photography. The whole film is a commentary on photography, among other things. My idea was that the photograph was too perfect, so I wanted to mess it up. I spent a lot of time working with the natural world even though I was making a film about this urban woman.

I didn’t want people to think that they had to understand what this image meant and what that image meant. It’s art; I want you to think about what it means, and I hope it hangs together for those who see it.

It was a practical issue as well because we needed something for you to look at while her work and journals were being read.

There are a few quite personal and emotional interviews in the film. How do you get people to open up like that?

I think people trust me; I think they could tell that I wasn’t out to get her. For some of her friends and loved ones it was very cathartic for me to come talk to them and they needed it. There was this joke that people had post-Sontag stress disorder because she was difficult.

Would you say your film has a feminist message?

I’m not an agitprop filmmaker, though I am an ardent feminist. I think it is a feminist film and it was very important for me to have a lot of women working on the film. I want people to think about her feminism. For some women this film is an incredibly empowering because it gives them permission to be the smart women they already are. That’s very exciting to me because I wasn’t necessarily expecting that. That’s been really moving to me.

I really want the audience to feel like they are participating in finishing the film in some ways. I hope that the film is subtle enough that you go home and ponder this instead of me telling you what’s what.

The Spread

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Posted on Aug 11, 2014

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