Ji.hlava Fest Pays Tribute to Feminist Writer and Documentary Pioneer Susan Sontag

American essayist, director, human rights advocate and feminist icon Susan Sontag might have been surprised to know the size of her following in the Czech Republic.

But, says David Cenek, who has curated work for the Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival for over a decade, “Most of Sontag’s books, including her novel, have been translated into Czech – which I think is due to the interest of Czech intellectuals in her work. Her book on photography is a worldwide reference work.”

This year’s Ji.hlava retrospective, “Susan Sontag: Filmmaking Is a Privilege,” is screening – likely for the first time anywhere in Central Europe – six of Sontag’s films, ranging from shorts to features, made from 1969 to 1993 and the collection shows a remarkable range of creative approaches.

As Ji.hlava fest programmers put it, “Her universal activities remain an impressive characteristic of this Renaissance woman of modern history” as exemplified early in her career by the 1964 piece “Notes on ‘Camp,’” which first won Sontag wide attention for her explorations of the word as it relates to gay culture and art.

And, as Cenek says, Ji.hlava often takes pride in “trying to recall the film work of a non-filmmaker or a prominent intellectual.”

Sontag’s essays “On Photography,” “Under the Sign of Saturn” and “Regarding the Pain of Others,” and her novel “The Volcano Lover” have all been surprisingly widely known to Czech readers for years, and Sontag’s interest in film runs through her entire body of work – making her in some ways almost overdue for a film fest tribute in the region.

As Ji.hlava programing manager Adriana Belesova puts it, “Basically, we wanted to show the complexity of Susan Sontag – the approach of her filmmaking and writing of scenarios.”

Among the unique gifts Sontag brought to the screen was a flare for subjects others would have easily overlooked, from exploring the formal and psychological basis of couple relationships, as in 1969’s “Duet for Cannibals” to anxiety and impatience among tourists in Vienna in 1993’s “Unguided Tour.”

“Her way of thinking about cinema is completely original,” Cenek says. “I am fascinated by her work as a whole. Her films are an inspiring example and an extension of her thinking about society, relationships or civic gestures.”

One goal of the Ji.hlava tribute, says Belesova, is to celebrate “the topics she shared through her films and also how she communicated through the edit. For example, in the film ‘Promised Lands,’ she uses editing as a narrator of the stories.”

Sontag’s selection of images have a special logic too, adds Belesova. “She combines different elements, things and details, and focuses on the meaning of these symbols such as churches, streets, rooftops, etc.”

Her philosophical stances are shared with film audiences, Belesova says, in the construction of shots that seem to reflect positions she takes in her essays and literature. Sontag also “uses the analysis and the decoding of social constructs” as a method of communicating broader dilemmas of contemporary life, she adds.

“That is what I like – that I think we feel the same about society in the 21st century.”

Cenek adds, “I think her films work a lot for someone who knows her texts. They are certainly proof that no film can be essentially apolitical.”

Sontag’s films also serve to illustrate “how the theoretical concept can be developed within a sovereign creative process” such as cinema, he argues.

“It is certainly instructive to see that an intellectual seemingly distant from film can act and think differently than with pencil and paper.”

And, despite Sontag having enjoyed her heyday in the American post-World War II and hippie eras, says Belesova, her positions are just as relevant today “even if the film is reflecting different historical events or different cultures than in the Czech Republic.”

And besides, women today face much the same struggling for status in many ways as they did in the ‘70s or ‘80s, she adds.

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