September 10, 2014

HBO to air Sontag doc focused on writer’s private life


And so we ask ourselves: Is she suffering? Also, why is the phone facing the wrong way?

And so we ask ourselves: Is she suffering? Also, why is the phone facing the wrong way?

This fall HBO will be airing an “intimate and nuanced investigation” into the life of writer, activist, filmmaker, and critic Susan Sontag. Regarding Susan Sontag already premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, winning the Special Jury Prize.

Director Nancy Kates is eager to introduce Sontag to a new generation of students after her death a decade ago. In an interview with, she explained:

The film is for college students. I meet a lot of college students or people under 40 who have never heard of Susan Sontag, never mind never read about her. We were constantly wondering, Is this too high brow? Is this too low brow? If we refer to an 18th-century philosopher, do they know who that is? They don’t know who Kant is, so how do we tell a story? It’s a very complicated thing to make a film about an intellectual in a country where people are getting less and less intellectual all the time.

Sontag, a highly political figure, famously traveled to conflict zones, stating, “I guess I go to war because I think it’s my duty to be in as much contact with reality as I can be. And war is a tremendous reality in our world.”

She stayed in Hanoi during the Vietnam War, made a film about the Palestinian situation in Israel following the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, and staged a production of Waiting for Godot in Sarejevo during its war-torn years. After 9/11 she controversially questioned the framing of the events as an “attack on the free world” asked if we shouldn’t instead wonder if the tragedy was not “a consequence of specific American alliances and actions.”

The film however, focuses on quieter moments on Sontag’s life, and the contrast between her public persona and her private life. Kates describes the private Sontag as “elusive” but also “as insecure and neurotic as the rest of us.”

Born to Jewish American parents in New York and raised in Arizona and Los Angeles, Sontag started at the University of California, Berkeley at just fifteen. She went on to study at the University of Chicago, Harvard University, Oxford University, and the Sorbonne before quitting academia to focus on her own work.

Kates, though eager to reveal the softer side of Sontag, is sure the film’s greatest critic would be Sontag herself:

No, she would be completely dismissive of this [film], I think. She hated biography. She apparently once sat next to Justin Kaplan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Mark Twain, Walt Whitman and Lincoln Steffens. He was being honored at this dinner, and she spent the whole evening telling him what a crock biography was. So she would not have much appreciated this film.

Watch the trailer below: