By Georgia Luscombe
Susan Sontag has been regarded by many as an intellectual and literary genius, a feminist hero and a queer icon. She went to college at 15, was married by 17, had a child at 19, gained a Master’s degree from Harvard and a fellowship from Oxford.
In her film Regarding Susan Sontag, screened at the Frontline Club on Friday 22 May, director Nancy Kates employs one of Sontag’s own passions, the medium of film, to document her life.
Opening with Sontag saying “I love being alive” (her own words spoken by Patricia Clarkson), Kates takes us on a cinematic journey with the woman who, however publicly celebrated, remained personally aloof and mysterious.
This intimate portrayal features interviews with her friends and former lovers, including Annie Leibovitz, Lucinda Childs, Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, Stephen Koch, Noel Burch and others. It won Best Documentary Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival last year and will be screening at Hackney Picturehouse on Tuesday 22nd June.
“We’ve got to tell the truth about this woman,” Kates said, “She didn’t tell the truth about herself.” Kates and her team used 130 different archives to piece together Sontag’s life. Starting at the Museum of Radio & Television in New York, she gave her researchers lists of clips to search for but said that she often found new material which shaped the film. “Sometimes it’s the archive that drives”, Kates explained. “She was one of the most photographed people of her era.”
The film explores both the themes and the events which shaped Sontag’s life; from her early marriage, her lesbian relationships, the Vietnam War and Sarajevo, to photography, film, fiction and politics. “It was very reluctantly that we made [the film] chronological,” Kates said, explaining that keeping it thematic was too confusing for an audience. Nonetheless, the film has a “meta-level” in the way it uses photographs, which was intended to reflect Sontag’s own way of “writing about photography and being the subject of photography”.
“We tried to show her as an icon,” Kates continued, “I don’t think it was really our job to analyse her work.” This film is first and foremost a documentary, a clever formation of archival footage and original interviews, piecing together the life of a woman who was clearly influenced and inspired by many different (often female) lovers. “It was a political act to go interview her girlfriends,” Kates explains. When asked about whether the interviews with her former girlfriends take predominance over discussion of her work, Kates replies that “The problem is we’re not used to seeing LGBT biographies.” This documentary portrays the life of a woman who, despite her lifestyle, was never “out”. It treats the issue sensitively but honestly. “People were criticising me for being open about her sexuality,” Kates said.
One of the most touching parts of the film is its interviews with her sister, Judith. The production team managed to track down Judith, who was living in Hawaii, and speak to her about her relationship with Susan. Judith, her mother and step-father only found out about Susan’s terminal cancer by reading it in a newspaper. As Susan was dying, she apologised to Judith for never been truly honest with her. “There are many people who have post-Sontag stress disorder”, Kates joked, explaining that people used talking in the film as “a form of therapy” for their “unresolved conflict” with her.
It is clear that the film was a labour of love for one of Sontag’s great admirers. “I put her on a pedestal,” Kates said, talking about her changing feelings towards Sontag during the making of the film, “I may not understand her personally but I understand some of the struggles she had.”
More information at www.sontagfilm.org
By Antonia Roupell
Nearly three years on from President Obama’s infamous ‘red line’ statement, Syrian activist and filmmaker Orwa Nyrabia, Syrian human rights lawyer Laila Alodaat, journalist Jonathan Littell and Nerma Jelacic of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), joined an audience at the Frontline Club on Thursday 21 May. In a discussion chaired by Owen Bennett-Jones, host of Newshour on the BBC World Service, the panel discussed Syria’s increasingly fractured reality and seemingly endless turmoil. Also under discussion was the investigative work currently underway to record evidence linking the Syrian regime to the atrocities committed, in the hope that the acting parties will one day be held accountable for their crimes.
By Francis Churchill
As part of the Documenting Ukraine festival held on Saturday 17 and Sunday 18 May in partnership with Open City Docs and GRAD, the Frontline Club screened the UK premiere of Anthony Butts’ work in progress: The Curious Tale of a Handmade Country.
With astonishing access, Butts followed and filmed Ukrainian rebels in the east of the country as they attempted to establish the Donetsk People’s Republic.
After the screening, Butts was joined by journalists Nataliya Gumenyuk and Oliver Carroll and Chatham House fellow Orysia Lutsevych for an in-depth discussion. The conversation touched upon economic grievances, propaganda and the escalation of the conflict.
By Alexandra Sarabia
On Wednesday 20 May, a conversation between Emma Sky and The Guardian’s Middle East editor, Ian Black, drew a packed house to the Frontline Club. Interested audience members and former colleagues of Sky were present to listen to the highly-regarded Iraq expert, and to celebrate and discuss her latest book, The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq.
By Graham Lanktree
In 2014, western troops drew down combat operations after 13 years of fighting against the Taliban in Afghanistan. This left the Afghan Army to cope with an enemy that some of the most powerful militaries on earth have failed to defeat.
In their new documentary Tell Spring Not to Come This Year, screened at the Frontline Club on Monday 18 May, directors Michael McEvoy and Saeed Taji Farouky follow an Afghan National Army (ANA) battalion for a year as they confront the transition of power in Helmand Province — one of the most unstable areas of the country.
By Heenali Patel
On Friday 15 May, the Frontline Club hosted the UK premiere of This Is My Land, followed by an insightful discussion with director Tamara Erde. Screened on the 67th anniversary of Israeli Independence and Nakba Day, the film poses an important and highly relevant question: how does teaching of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict affect younger generations in the contested region?
By Amy McConaghy
On Tuesday 5 May, Middle East editor of Newsweek Janine di Giovanni and veteran broadcaster and journalist Charles Glass joined an audience at the Frontline Club for an insightful discussion chaired by Sigrid Rausing, editor of Granta magazine.
Reflecting on the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and the human realities of war, di Giovanni and Glass discussed their recent contributions to the latest edition of Granta: The Map is Not the Territory, which explores the distinctions between representation and reality.
“The theme that comes to me over and over when I think of Iraq is loss,” said di Giovanni. Her article, After Zero Hour, looks back on her time reporting on the Iraq conflict, remembering old friends who have since disappeared, emigrated or fled.
Di Giovanni described driving the length and width of Iraq prior to the 2003 invasion, aware that, as the impending war approached, many of the places she visited would soon cease to exist.
She read an extract from After Zero Hour: “With that invasion and the insurgent war that followed, Iraq would virtually disappear. The land of date trees, oasis and desert would be marked by checkpoints and graves.”
Glass followed with a short extract from his article, The Battle of Kessab, which examines the fate of the eponymous town in Syria. Kessab was the last remaining Armenian town in Syria, after the Turkish army relinquished control of portions of its border with Syria to Islamist rebels in 2014.Rausing responded to the reading: “What you describe so beautifully in the piece is really the context of the Armenian genocide. How everything that happens reminds people of the original genocide.”
An audience member asked Glass and di Giovanni to comment on the importance of lyrical writing in journalistic articles.
“We have the great privilege of writing poetically for Granta,” said di Giovanni. “For me, writing in a lyrical way in terms of narrative and characterisation is much easier.”
“This kind of language is so important,” said Rausing. “It’s the only kind of writing that will endure and have a life after.”
The discussion then covered the role played by journalists in stimulating positive political change, by providing on-the-ground evidence that can filter into policymaking.
“In some sense there’s a limit to what journalism can do. We can bring awareness, we can tell the story,” said di Giovanni. “The gap between reporting and policymaking is huge… there is an enormous gap between what is happening in the Security Council and in Obama’s office and what is actually happening on the ground. And that is hugely frustrating.”
A final audience question discussed the role of long-form journalism and an increased focus on human stories to encourage empathy and eliminate compassion fatigue.
“For the most part newspapers don’t have space… there are very few outlets. Thank god these things exist, but it’s hard to make a living doing that,” said Glass, highlighting Granta, The New York Review of Books and The Guardian as some of the few publications that champion longer pieces.
“For me it always comes down to the people,” said di Giovanni. “Then you could weave in the humanitarian disaster, you could get the political involvement in it, you could bring in the diplomacy… but I think it’s coming back. I think people want to read longer pieces.”
Subscribe to Granta magazine here.
By Julia Ronyai
On Tuesday 28 April, veteran foreign correspondent Christina Lamb joined an audience at the Frontline Club for an insightful discussion on her latest book, Farewell Kabul, which encompasses her experiences over 27 years of reporting from Afghanistan.
Looking forward to a great evening with @christinalamb talking to @Sarah_Montague at the @frontlineclub pic.twitter.com/K1gjQsVoz7
— Chris King (@DocChrisKing) April 28, 2015
By Will Worley
On Wednesday 22 April 2015, the Frontline Club welcomed investigative journalist and director of policy and investigations at UK charity Action on Armed Violence, Iain Overton for a discussion on his latest book, Gun Baby Gun: A Bloody Journey into the World of the Gun. The event was chaired by ANC former politician and author Andrew Feinstein, who has written extensively on the global arms trade.
By Stefano Pozzebon
On Tuesday 21 April, the Frontline Club hosted a panel to discuss the water crisis in Brazil and the world’s largest green area, the Amazonian rainforest. Chaired by Andrew Mitchell, chairman of the Scientific Exploration Society, the event was the second in a series entitled ‘Exploration of the Frontline,’ a collaboration between the Scientific Exploration Society and the Frontline Club that aims at bringing together journalists, explorers and academics for an evening of informed debate.
By Alex Glynn
An eclectic mix of friends and colleagues joined together at the Frontline Club on Monday 20th April, in celebration of two photographers that not only captured the realities of war, but also explored the frontiers of artistic imagery.
By Ratha Lehall
On Friday 10 April, the Frontline Club hosted a screening of We Were Rebels, which was followed by a Q&A with director Florian Schewe. The film focuses on the struggles of South Sudan, the word’s youngest country, following its independence and through the eyes of Agel, a former child soldier during the civil war. Agel was able to flee Sudan and become a professional basketball player in Australia. On his return to South Sudan following independence, he joined his national team as captain and, after injury forced him into early retirement, focused on helping to build the country through his new development NGO.
By Francis Churchill
It has been almost 20 years since Guatemala emerged from a civil war that saw 200,000 native Mayans systematically murdered by Government troops. Today the country is still rife with crime and corruption. Nearly 6,000 people are murdered in the country each year, and very few cases result in prosecution.
Burden of Peace, screened at the Frontline Club on 16 April, tells the story of Claudia Paz y Paz, Guatemala’s Attorney General between 2010 and 2014 and the first woman to hold the position. Director Joey Boink followed her during her time in office as she attempted to clamp down on corruption, end the widespread impunity and bring former dictator, Efrain Rios Montt, to justice on charges of genocide.