The late author, essayist, filmmaker and public intellectual Susan Sontag insisted on defining herself and adamantly resisted being labeled by others.
Sontag vehemently objected to being called a lesbian, for example, and to the idea of classifying sexuality. As filmmaker Nancy Kates puts it, “She was an unidentified queer person who mostly slept with women.”
Sontag, who was born Susan Rosenblatt and adopted her surname at the age of 13, had an equally complicated relationship with her Jewishness.
“She couldn’t hide being Jewish, and she wanted to be a Jewish intellectual, but she didn’t want to be labeled Jewish, in some way,” Kates said. “[Virtually] everyone in her little world was Jewish, at the Partisan Review and the New York Review of Books, and she lived in a world of New York intellectuals at a time when that mattered much more than it does now.
“But for some reason,” Kates said, “that [Jewish] label didn’t resonate with her very well except in the intellectual sense of it.”
Kates’ incisive, textured documentary, “Regarding Susan Sontag,” premieres Dec. 8 on HBO, a few weeks before the 10th anniversary of its subject’s death.
Her interest in whatever Sontag was writing and thinking goes back nearly three decades to Kates’ undergraduate years at Harvard. Yet, the Boston Jewish native, who has lived in Berkeley, Calif., for many years, admits that she didn’t grasp the importance of Sontag’s Jewishness when she embarked on the film.
During production, though, she came across a clip of Sontag in a 1980 documentary asserting that the defining occurrence of her pre-adolescence was seeing images of the Holocaust in a book when she was 12, That would make it 1945.
“There are ways you could see that as the foundational moment in her life,” Kates said. “Her high school quasi-boyfriend and two of her girlfriends [later in life] were Holocaust survivors. And she was a teenager in the 1940s. The Holocaust was enormously important in her life in a way that it wouldn’t be for an American Jew growing up today.”
Kates deduces that Sontag’s lifelong interest in photography and war can be traced to that seismic moment in 1945 — if, she notes, the anecdote is true.
The filmmaker conceived and structured “Regarding Susan Sontag” to leave as much room as possible for the viewer to arrive at their own perception of Sontag. That has a great deal to do with Kates’ abhorrence of generalizations and
oversimplifications, but it also reflects her view that she doesn’t completely know or understand her enigmatic subject — even after years of research and interviews.
Kates is undecided if Sontag was in a Jewish closet or simply ambivalent about her Jewish identity. Sontag’s limited writings on Israel don’t offer a lot of guidance.
At the time of the Yom Kippur War, Sontag said, “I am generally in favor of the Israeli government.” A few months later, Sontag shot a documentary in Israel, “Promised Lands,” that is neither rabidly pro-Palestinian nor rabidly pro-Israeli. But at the end of her life, she gave the Oscar Romero memorial speech at the Rothko Chapel in Texas supporting the refusenik soldiers who declined to serve in the Occupied Territories.
“So she had a sense of Jewish conscience, I would say, Jewish ethics,” said Kates. “Sontag talked in [her groundbreaking essay] ‘Notes on Camp’ about Jewish moral seriousness. So there’s this little thread of Judaism in the film, or Jewish thought, or Jewish something, and it’s not me — it’s her. But she was not a yarmulke-wearing, breast-beating, Shabbat-attending kind of Jew in any way.”