Category Archives: GLBT documentary

“DECODING ALAN TURING”— Remembering Turing

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“Decoding Alan Turing”

Remembering Turing

Amos Lassen

2014 has been a good year for Alan Turing and it is too bad that he is not around to appreciate it. We lost Turning to death by his own hand because he could not deal with the punishment that the British government gave to him –medical castration or life in prison. Turing was a brilliant mathematician, logician, cryptographer, computer scientist and a world-class runner. He was a Cambridge graduate, who was fundamental to cracking the Nazi’s Enigma Code during World War II and who’s momentous paper, “On Computable Numbers” created the basis for the modern programmable computer.

Alan Turing was also a gay male. He was a victim of the intolerance and legal prosecution of his time. He went though hormone therapy in attempt to change his behavior and suffered their side effects – and the consequences. His death was shrouded in mystery and was a tragic loss to Great Britain and the world. Who knows where his mind would have taken the science of Mathematics or the world of modern computing?

Posthumously, he has been lauded. Universities around the world have programs and buildings in his name. He has earned an English Heritage Blue Plate on his childhood home. And, since 1966, an award in his name has been given each year by the Association for Computing Machinery, widely considered to be the computing world’s equivalence of the Nobel

 On September 9, 2009 UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an apology on behalf of the British Government for the treatment and persecution of Alan Turing and recognizing his invaluable contributions to the world. Queen Elizabeth also pardoned him posthumously.

Turing affected modern society more than any other individual to date. Turing was drafted into service during WWII to work at Bletchley Park and helped crack the Nazi Enigma Code and turn the tide of WWII for the Allies. A hero many times over, he was later persecuted by the same country he fought to protect for being a homosexual. It is rumored that the Apple Computer logo— the apple with a bite missing that adorns so many of our most prized electronics is a nod to those in the know about Alan Mathison Turing, an English Mathematician (widely hailed as the father of the modern computer) who was found dead at age 41 with a poisoned apple laying next to his bed.

Like so many, Turing grew up gay and felt alone and different. Little did he know what a role model he would become.

“JULIAN”— Who was Julian?

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“Julian”

Who was Julian?

Amos Lassen

Julian has been called many things— a philosopher, a hedonist, a sage and a charlatan.  Friends, associates and scholars lend their opinions in this look into Julian’s controversial ideas, his secrets and his public persona.  Was he a cult leader or simply a clever performance artist?  He was cut down at the height of his fame, vanished and presumed dead yet Julian is still the enigma today that he was in the prime of his short career. The film, “Julian”, directed by Michael Yates,  is about a failed attempt to revive the primitive role of art as a means of worship; much like the pagan Emperor Julian (“Julian the Apostate”) tried to hold back the establishment of Christianity as the state religion of Rome.  This is a movie about failure yet it is very interesting. Movies about failure aren’t that popular, but I think they’re often more interesting.

Julian had brains but he did not really know how to deal with his intelligence. He was an intellectual with a humanistic worldview and tried  being a cult leader in order to reach an audience beyond academia and mainstream culture. He really had no formal education and he did not need followers but they came.  

His philosophy combined Carl Sagan, Gore Vidal, Norman O. Brown, Marshall McLuhan and Alan Watts.  It is opposite to the apocalyptic paranoia of Manson and Jim Jones, and it was not inherently compatible with a discipleship. This is from where the main tension comes in this film—somewhere between the aspirations of Julian and the reality that falls short.  It was not about this character as much as about the perceptions that others had of him.

 The film is loosely structured and intuitive.  It is not a narrative drama and is difficult to classify. It is part scripted, part improvised, part mockumentary, and part video essay.

“WHAT NOW? REMIND ME”— Looking Back

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“What Now? Remind Me” (“E Agora? Lembra-me”)

Looking Back

Amos Lassen

Joaquin Pinto been living with HIV for more than twenty years looks back at his life in cinema, at his friendships and loves, at the mysteries of art and nature all the while he undergoes an experimental drug treatment. He turned the camera on himself and his partner, Nuno Leonel for a year and this film is the result of that. It is also a tribute to importance of Portuguese cinema. This is a record of Pinto’s experience taking experimental drugs designed to combat HIV and Hepatitis C, both of with he has been living with for a long time. As the film rolls Pinto gives poetic and philosophical reflections via voice-over narration that accompany scenes of him and Leonel visiting the hospital, playing with their dogs, working on their farm and even making love.

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We see Pinto’s humor and we feel his sensitivity in this revealing self-portrait and what we really get from this film is a look at how to live life well. Joaquim Pinto has had a prolific career predominantly in sound editing as well as a considerable filmography of directing features. He began the idea of turning the camera on himself as a way to document a year of experimental clinical trials in treatment for HIV and Hepatitis C, debilitating conditions with which he is living.

He speaks about the changes his body is undergoing because of the side-effects of the drug combinations, as well as the liability he has agreed to for the period in which he will essentially be a human guinea pig. He has placed himself in an interesting position but one that is not uncommon for those suffering from a long-term illness in that in reaching towards better health in the future, his short-term experience of life is severely diminished. His focus is on taking apart the nature of naturally occurring and artificial viruses, and musing on the life he has lead so far with his husband, Nuno. Living in rural Portugal with four dogs, the pair spend time in their garden planting.

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Along with what he is dealing with at present as seen in the film, Pinto uses footage shot over the years of he and Nuno’s younger selves and the community of filmmakers and artists who have entered and departed their lives due to the same affliction. He names Derek Jarman, amongst others who were struck down by “the disease killing homosexuals” in the 1980s. We might say that the film is also a tribute to “friends departed and those who remain”. This is not just a film about HIV; it is about living. We get a bit of narrative tension by Pinto’s dilemma of whether to continue with the drug trials or stop and accept liability and yet, the consequences of his choice either way will soon become secondary to more general insights regarding community and creativity.

We see what companionship is all about by watching Pinto and Nuno who are not only lovers but best friends. What surprised me is the almost methodical approach to life, where the seemingly simple components of tenderness, play and touch – both from their pack of personable dogs and each other – are a daily reminder of the very things that life is worth living for. It is so beautiful in its simplicity.

I understand that the impetus for the film came in November 2011 when the filmmaker went to Madrid to begin a yearlong experimental regimen to treat his HIV. This philosophical documentary charts his life over that time, capturing the painful side effects of both the disease and its treatment. We learn that Pinto has undergone a number of treatments throughout his life, first in the ’90s when he was first diagnosed with HIV, and then again in 2001 and 2004. So while Pinto’s 2011 treatment gives this film its underlying narrative, it’s only one aspect of the documentary. The film is ultimately becomes less a chronicle about one man’s attempt to defeat an illness than it does one about living with disease generally, particularly one that modern medicine can keep at bay but not completely destroy.

The documentary is mainly made up of Pinto filming his daily life and Nuno as he works on their farm. Pinto sometimes speaks directly to the camera, using it as a diary, but for the most part we learn his thoughts and feelings through voiceover. He covers many topics from his personal history, to his embracing of Christianity, to his philosophical reflections on time, humanity, and nature. The film runs just less than three hours but it never bores.

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Its length is a direct and justified consequence of Pinto’s unwavering commitment to disclosing the most intimate parts of his life. Also, the repetitive rhythms of Pinto’s daily routines give the film a sense of serenity that is in stark contrast to his underlying anxiety and his dealing with the possibility of an imminent and untimely death. Even the more stressful cycles of Pinto’s treatment—the trips to the hospital for blood analyses, his daily medication—are less stressful than we might expect. This could be because they’re portrayed as just another part of Pinto’s regular life, but also because he seems to have been living with the prospect of death for so long that his experience of that reality is now defined less by fear than by a search for peace and understanding.

Yet we do have a sense of death hanging over nearly every scene in the film and in the beginning Pinto apologizes for his voice, explaining that his HIV treatment ruined his teeth and he still has not gotten used to speaking with his new dentures (His medication destroyed his teeth). As the film moves forward, we watch Pinto confront both his physical decline and fear about a deeper mental and spiritual deterioration. “I’m afraid that I’ll lose so much, my senses, my logic, that I will be incapable of deciding anything at all,” he tells the camera. “That I will lose the notion that I exist.” Pinto’s decline in health is evident but he has had to deal with the encroaching shadow of it since 1997 and what has threatened to overtake him has been held at bay. But with each failed treatment it returns. and then loomed again with each failed treatment. It might continue to do so for the foreseeable future. However, by the end, Pinto appears more resigned than when the film began: The film that began as a mix of memoir, diary, and documentary seems to end as a but by a last will and testimony.

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Where the film could’ve had either too much self-pity or too much self-righteousness, Pinto chooses to look beyond the confines of his disease to enjoy and revel in a fascinating life. Hew is a man who has always loved the movies and he talks about having seen some of the early forays into porn, “Emmanuelle” or “Deep Throat” in a theater. There are lots of anecdotal moments and introspective scenes in which he seems to dwell on existentialism but ultimately, Pinto has created a unique film.

“FAMILY TIME” (“Z’MAN MISHPACHA”)— A Road Trip

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 “FAMILY TIME” (“Z’MAN MISHPACHA”)

A Road Trip

Amos Lassen

There is nothing like a road trip for exposing family secrets. Nitzan Gilady, an Israeli moviemaker and his family—his parents, his two older brothers and his sister all got into an RV and planned to travel across the United States for a week and they headed towards the Grand Canyon. A lot happens as they ride as they all took out their dirty laundry to air. Most of what they dealt with were issues that they had been keeping within.

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Nitzan’s father went to Israel from Yemen when he was very young and because of the death of his mother, was sent to a boarding school (Israeli boarding schools are not the fancy places elsewhere and work is part of the education received there). His father had to grow up tough and he developed great determination to succeed in life. The very same determination meant that he wanted his wife and his children to have every opportunity in life especially Those that he had not been able to have. (This is obviously a Jewish tradition as my father did the same’ also like my father, Nitzan’s dad was uncomfortable showing or dealing with any of his feelings).

We learn that Nitzan’s older brother was a rebel in his youth and this pained his father. He refused to take life seriously. He did marry but the marriage fell apart soon after the road trip. Nitzan’s younger brother had served time in the Israeli Army and was now suffering from shell shock.  He was diffident, moody and very temperamental and was struggled to deal with life in general.  The family understood that he would always need to live at home with the parents because he was too volatile to live in his own and be left to his own resources.

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Nitzan left Israel so that he could come out and be free with his homosexuality.  He did so in New York City when he was 30 and it took another five years for him to be able to tell his parents. They knew he is gay but refused to talk about it. Then one night on the trip Nitzan forces the issue and makes his father and father confront their bigotry (His mother was better at it than his father). When this moment comes on the screen we see raw emotion and opposing views: one was based in ignorance and real fear, and other rational one from an unhappy filmmaker who just wants his father’s love and acceptance. It is difficult to watch because it is so heart wrenching and emotional. When I lived in Israel I had many friends from Yemenite families and in most cases these are religious people. Even so, Yemen is a Muslim country and no doubt that also influences the way Yemenis view homosexuality. In these families the father is the ruler and he must be obeyed and perhaps that is why the scene with Nitzan talking to his parents hit me so hard.

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Nitzan’s father is rigid and slow to budge on ideas that he holds sacred. We see that he loves his sons even though he may never be able to actually come to terms with the fact that none of them have turned out how he really wanted them to be. Because they were all in a RV for a week, they were forced to speak as a family. The father stayed strict throughout but I believe that deep down inside he has the desire to change but just does not know how to do so.

Most of us have been where this film goes and it reminds us that families are families no matter what. Sometimes we need to be reminded of that.

“ALEX AND ALI”— Falling in Love in Iran

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“ALEX AND ALI” 

Falling in Love in Iran

Amos Lassen

Alex is now 68 years old and a former American Peace Corps volunteer. He moved to Iran in 1968 where he fell in love with an Iranian man. After being in Iran for ten years, he was forced to return to the States and leave his lover behind. In May, 2012 the two men were reunited in Turkey but things took a turn in Istanbul and the guys are facing a very big challenge.

When Alex met Ali, both men sensed an instant connection and the two became inseparable until the Islamic revolution began, Alex was forced to come back to the United States. Malachi Leopold, Alex’s nephew directed this documentary that is the story of forbidden love. The film gives a dramatic look at the ways in which two different cultures view homosexuality, as well as the changes that have come over the years. When the two got back together, they had been apart so long that their reunion did not go smoothly. However, the film is partly about the strength of love and the difficulties in maintaining a relationship, especially one where secrets must be kept.

When Alex and Ali first met, Alex was teaching English in Iran and Ali was a local boy who fell madly in love with him. Ali lived at home with his family who had no idea of the true nature of their son’s relationship with this blond American man, but they still welcomed him into their midst and treated him like another son.

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After leaving Iran and the installation of the new Islamic regime, contact for Iranians with the rest of the world was cut off and they lost each other. Then in the 1980s they were allowed to communicate but they knew that the Iranian Government was censoring all mail and tapping phone conversations and so they were careful not to write or say anything that may imply they were in fact a couple. Years passed and Alex had other relationships with other men but still considered Ali to be the love of his life and continued to communicate with him. Moving forward to 2012, Alex now 68 is living with HIV and was encouraged by his filmmaker nephew to see if there is not a way that these two men can finally be together.

Researching a way for the two to meet again, they discovered that it would be best for Ali to fly to Turkey (one of the few places the Iranian government allows its citizens to visit). They could meet there and try to learn about the possibilities of bringing Ali to America to live permanently. For the last few years, Ali has been a surrogate father to his late brother’s family and looking after his mother, but they are not the main obstacle for his potential departure. The only grounds that he can apply for any sort of US residency is if he is a refugee in danger in his own country. The fact he is gay and living in Iranian makes him well qualified, but neither Alex or Malachi are convinced that Ali can overcome all his cultural heritage and actually admit to that. Being gay after all in Iran means execution.

In the documentary we see the men’s excited arrival in Istanbul, which is quickly marred when Ali admits that he didn’t follow Alex’s instructions and he packed personal letters, political documents and a US Visa Application in his carry-on luggage which the Iranian Authorities ceased. This immediately put a black cloud over the whole vacation as they all know that Ali will be questioned and punished the moment he returns. Alex had felt that love conquers all but it soon appears that although Ali may agree with him, he thinks that the intervening years have hardened and changed Alex’s attitudes to life in general, a fact that greatly disturbs him. The two obviously care about each other but more out of respect for what was once. Alex is optimistic about the future while Ali is more pragmatic and is willing and prepared to face the consequences of the reality of his life even though by now he is concerned of how dire this can possibly be. Ali maintains a rigid belief in his faith in God.

The story is powerfully sad and the reunion instead of being happy changed the wonderful memories that the two men once shared into a tragedy that neither wanted nor deserved.  It’s a powerful and depressingly sad story although somewhat ironically it’s played out against Istanbul’s rather beautiful landscape. The reunion turned a distant magical memory for two old lonely men into a tragedy that neither of them deserved. 

“THE END OF CRUISING”— Finding Each Other

the end of cruising


”The End of Cruising”

Finding Each Other

Amos Lassen

Let me start off my saying that I am a huge Todd Verow fan even when he makes gritty and realistic movies. I think that is because he dares to go where others will not. This new documentary is typical Verow—bold and graphic and it is meant only for mature viewers.Today we live in an age of technology that has changed the way we meet each other or shall I say, cruise each other. In fact I am not sure that the word cruising even exists anymore. I remember the good old days in New Orleans when people cruised each other on the street and it was not strange at all to meet someone while mailing a letter or just strolling down the street.

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“The End of Cruising” is a stimulating anthology documentary of 22 short films that celebrate the pleasures gay men had finding places for anonymous sexual activity. Eloquent voice-over narrators tells their stories longingly and with fond memories of how the simple act of cruising played such an important part in the way they grew sexually. They reflect on the experience of having private sex in public places – from furtive, but knowing glances on the street to anonymous assignations in toilets, parks and on beaches. Verow’s films are always intense and that is why he has never been shy about showing and celebrating transgressive sexuality—we have seen it before in some of his other films.

Today if someone wants to have sex all he has to do is log on to the Internet, connect to a site and there it is. The bar scene has died quickly but it was once very different. In this film, Verow remembers a time when cruising areas provided instant gratification. There were public toilets, woods, highway rest areas, parks and cruising could be subtle or wild. Verow has taken the testimonies, most of which are anonymous and gives them to us in voiceovers by different narrators. This is quite a cinematic experience and very exciting and I am sure we will all remember how it once was.

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It is a bygone time but memories will come back to us and no doubt this will be nostalgic for many. We have now won the right to be who we are but Todd Verow tells us that “When you win something, we always lose another.” In most Western countries, gays can now live their sexuality freely, without having to hide. They can live their love, consider getting married, or just have sex while online for just a few moments. Now instead of seeing people face to face we exchange electronic photos and impersonality reigns.

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“The End of Cruising” reminds us that all is not necessarily great. In the old days we risked being arrested and having our names in the newspaper. So there was a price to pay as well. We get here a whirlwind ride through a time that was and probably never will be again so it is definitely worth remembering.

“FIRST COMES LOVE”— Getting Pregnant

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“First Comes Love”

Getting Pregnant

Amos Lassen

Filmmaker Nina Davenport was single and forty-one years old when she decided to have a baby on her own. She disregarded the odds that were against her including the high cost of living in New York City, She enlisted her friend Amy as a birth partner and asked her gay friend Eric to be a sperm donor. Of course she wrestled with the idea of what it means to create a new life and how it would affect her hopes for a future relationship.

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This is an autobiographical movie and it looks at the various issues Nina faces as her biological clock ticks down. She goes through the dating scene looking for a husband and father for the child that she wants to have and ultimately decides on in vitro and she does by convincing one of her friends to donate his sperm. We see that she is surrounded by friends and family as she moves toward her goal of motherhood. Just as they indeed give her real support, there are also those who feel skeptical about what she is doing. In fact, her father outright rejects the idea. Ultimately she has her child and she and her son seem to have that “I told you so” attitude.

There are some very interesting aspects of the film such as when Nine re-examines her childhood and her relationship with her parents but there is also a good deal of self-obsession here.

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What we really see is how the modern family is being re-imagined in the early twenty-first century. I felt, at times, as if I was watching a case study of the filmmaker. She is candid about the trials that women go through to get pregnant, give birth and then deal with raising the child and we do get a new appreciation for mothers.

“WHEN MY SORROW DIED: The Legend of Armen Ra & the Theremin”— His Journey

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“When My Sorrow Died: The Legend of Armen Ra & the Theremin”

His Journey

Amos Lassen

Just who is Theremin master Armen Ra? He is eccentric and enigmatic and he takes us with him on his journey that mixes together concert performances, candid interviews and archival material as well as music that has the ability to make everything look beautiful. His creativity is life defining and soul saving and it is the core of this biographical look at the man. This is a candid look at some of the key moments in his Ra’s personal growth and we see just how much of an enigma he is as he talks with an off-camera interviewer. We learn of a life lived as an outsider, initially by society’s design then ultimately on his own terms.

Ra was born into a minority in Iran where the threat of persecution was always present. He suffered from violent bullying at his new American high school and while it was painful it helped define his self-worth. His acceptance among the LGBT community of New York City was reaffirming but substance abuse stifled his growth. It was not until he managed to reach a degree of sobriety that he became one of the greatest living proponents of the ethereal electronic instrument.

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Ra’s fine features and feminine curves made him a drag superstar and Robert Nazar Arjoyan’s camera captures all his charms, both physical and intellectual. Often appearing to be at one with the lushly glamorous set design against which he is framed (and which he personally compiled for the film), the enigmatic musician lays bare periods of drug and alcohol consumption. His fateful take on how the theremin came into his life and set about redefining his very existence is deeply affecting.

Interspersed with Ra’s recollections is intimately staged concert footage that captures the prowess and precision required to be a master of the seven octave theremin, the only instrument played by not touching it and the first electronic musical device invented.

“When My Sorrow Died” is a look at the emergence of a man in the guise of an artist, of a life made richer by reconciliation with one’s demons. Arjoyan’s detailed, heartfelt ode to a musical genius is also a look at a unique individual searching for and ultimately finding a path to acceptance and understanding. Armen Ra’s journey and talent deserves a film that transcends the concert film genre and Arjoyan delivers on that with graceful style. 

“FOUCAULT AGAINST HIMSELF”— The Genius

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“Foucault Against Himself”

The Genius

Amos Lassen

Michel Foucault was one of the great minds of the 20th century and he is also my personal hero. He wrote about whatever he wanted and he did so brilliantly. He covered madness, sexuality, pleasure, the classics, law and penal institutions—he was a renaissance man at a time when there was no renaissance. I had the pleasure of studying with him in Paris the year before his death to AIDS and for me it was akin to sitting at the feet of a great mind and an unpredictable mind at that. He said, “Don’t ask me who I am, and don’t tell me to remain the same.” The extent of his thought and his mind were astonishing and he has left his mark as Foucaldian philosophy is still being studied widely.

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Foucault was able to bridge the roles of the intellectual and the activist—he attained the highest honors of the French academy and used his position to attack the very power that gave him a platform. This documentary comes to us from director François Caillat and is divided into four chapters: Foucault’s critique of psychiatry, his work on the history of sexuality, the growth of his radicalism arising from his research into the French penal system, the nature of knowledge and underlying structures of human behavior, and his immersion in American counter-cultural movements; particularly the resistance to certain social structures that he found among sexual minority communities in San Francisco.

We hear from leading philosophers, sociologists and historians among them is Leo Bersani, who first invited Foucault to speak at UC Berkeley – as well as footage of Foucault himself and French and American archival material depicting events that profoundly influenced him.

Foucault profoundly opposed the notion of small fiefdoms of knowledge. His approach was eclectic (a philosopher writing extensively about history and surveying prisoners on their living conditions, to give two examples) and wide-ranging. Philosopher and art historian Georges Didi-Huberman calls him an intellectual “nomad… crossing the territorial boundaries of knowledge.”

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Certain themes or threads can be found in Foucault’s writings—the critique of institutional power and the celebration of resistance – but his work is also filled with fragmentary thoughts and contradictions. We must thank him for his idea that “Knowledge is Power”.

The film beautifully captures the energy and the intellect of Michel Foucault and it introduces us to the key ideas and elements of his philosophy. It also acknowledges and celebrations the many contradictions within his writings.

“REGARDING SUSAN SONTAG”— Writer/Philosopher/Political Activist/Filmmaker

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“Regarding Susan Sontag”

Writer/Philosopher/Political Activist/Filmmaker

Amos Lassen

“Regarding Susan Sontag” is an intimate and fascinating look at and into the life of Sontag, one of the most influential and provocative thinkers of the 20th century. She was a woman of passion and she was outspoken as one of the most important literary, political and feminist icons of her generation. This documentary explores her life through archival materials, accounts from friends, family, colleagues, and lovers, as well as her own words and it is narrated by actress Patricia Clarkson. Before she died at age 71, Sontag was a cultural critic and writer whose works on photography, war, illness, and terrorism are still very relevant today.

Director Nancy Kates is undoubtedly in awe of Sontag despite what we learn here—that she was a self-centered and pretentious egotist. She was a very handsome woman who knew how to promote herself and pose seductively and provocatively for photographs. She was a powerful speaker and had no patience for “anything or anybody that offended her highly tuned sensitivity and she was regarded as a snob by many because of this.” She hated being the subject of criticism and openly disagreed with those who had something unkind to say about her or her work.

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She influenced how many Americans look at and feel about their culture and because she was famous she felt she could do what she wanted. Sontag abandoned her first husband, Peter Rieff (who had been her sociology instructor at the University of Chicago) and her son so that she could be free to move to London to accept a fellowship at Oxford University. She had already been mixing with those that she felt were her intellectual equal (or higher), people who were at the forefront of their fields.

She published her first novel, “The Benefactor” in 1963 and even though she did not have a large fiction output, she considered herself to be first and foremost a novelist. However, Gore Vidal said that she was one of the world’s worst writers and that “her intelligence is greater than her talent”. Shortly after leaving her husband she began a series of love affairs with several famous women, most of whom seemed to be in the closet or in denial about their sexuality. Even though she continued to have affairs with both men and women, the film focuses on her lesbian affairs.

On a personal level, she was never very open which is in contrast to being vocal about many controversial and socially/political topics. She constantly pushed her opinions forward in her writings and in public debates. She probably felt like her life partner, Annie Leibovitz, that there was no need for labels. As Sontag neared death she asked her sister to name anything she regretted and would had liked to have changed and she replied that she had never been honest with her about the things that were really important to her.