Sontag documentary wrestles with public icon, private enigma

The late author, essayist, filmmaker and 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 Berkeley filmmaker Nancy Kates puts it, “She was an unidentified queer person who mostly slept with women.”

From “Regarding Susan Sontag”

Sontag, who was born Susan Rosenblatt and took the name Sontag 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,” Kates explains. “[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, that [Jewish] label didn’t resonate with her very well except in the intellectual sense of it.”

Kates’ incisive, textured documentary “Regarding Susan Sontag” airs Monday, Dec. 8 on HBO, a few weeks before the 10th anniversary of Sontag’s death at age 71 from leukemia. The film screened last summer at both the San Francisco International LGBT and S.F. Jewish film festivals.

The filmmaker’s 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 the East Bay 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 experience of her preadolescence 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 says. “Her high school quasi-boyfriend and two of her girlfriends [later in life] were Holocaust survivors. And she was a teenager in the ’40s. The Holocaust was enormously important in her life in a way that it wouldn’t be for an American Jew growing up today.”

Kates conceived and structured “Regarding Susan Sontag” to leave as much room as possible for viewers to arrive at their own perception of Sontag. That has a great deal to do with the filmmaker’s 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.

“She had a sense of Jewish conscience, I would say. Jewish ethics,” Kates muses.

“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.”

“Regarding Susan Sontag” airs 9 p.m. Monday, Dec. 8 on HBO.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.