VIFF: Regarding Susan Sontag, Sharing, Soliton Reviews

Regarding Susan Sontag (dir. Nancy D. Kates)

Regarding Susan Sontag (dir. Nancy D. Kates)

Editor’s Notes: The following capsule reviews are part of our coverage of the 2014 Vancouver International Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit and follow VIFF on Twitter at @viffest.

Regarding Susan Sontag

Dir. Nancy D. Kates

Nancy D. Kates’ Regarding Susan Sontag is an unusually poetic documentary which uses abstract form, both visual and aural, to create a sort of collage of Sontag’s illustrious life. Through graphic images, fragmentation, and a wonderful score—which deserves its own reading as an independent piece of art—Sontag’s life and work is conveyed in little pieces. Like letters which make up a word, these pieces, once combined, form a fully fleshed realization of Susan Sontag, an idea which is visually expressed vis-à-vis a repeated image of words graphically drawn into a portrait of her.

Just as images may be fractured, so might words; letters form a word, words form an image. Behind this image is Kates’ concept of the film, her fundamental idea that Susan Sontag was a woman made of words. This surely explains the use of abstract imagery and free-form jazz; however, it doesn’t necessarily make the film work. At times, her abstract, poetic mode documentary becomes showy and superfluous. Certain unsophisticated images, such as a graphic of cellular mitosis, are both poorly executed and unneeded. These qualities make it immediately oppose Sontag’s own philosophy. The first to admit this is Kates herself, who hilariously exclaimed her relief that she has passed and therefore will never see Kates film.

Bearing over much of the film’s themes is discussion of Sontag’s sexuality, which she adamantly spoke about and yet managed to keep private throughout her lifetime. The other major trope of her writing which is herein considered is her query to understand the meaning of a writer. Most eloquently, and nearest to the truth, she claims that a writer is an instrument for attuning into reality, or as much of reality as possible. She describes the troubling lifestyle this imposes, which explains her constant sense of urgency, an urgency paralleled in the film’s score.

The strongest aspects of the film however, besides its stylistic nuances, are the many excerpts of her writing which are presented in voice over during poetic scenes. It’s often with documentary footage that interviews and readings of a person’s work can become tired, unoriginal, and frankly boring. In this case, each idea is transformed into an image which is related in some way to another idea, which is also transformed into an image. These images coalesce and provide fodder for reading Sontag’s—in this case spoken—writings. The result is a highly informing, if incomplete portrait of a woman of many words.


Sharing (dir. Makoto Shinozaki)

(dir. Makoto Shinozaki)

Dir. Makoto Shinozaki

Sad to say, Makoto Shinozaki’s Sharing is complete nonsense. A pseudo philosophical rumination on pre-cognition and telepathy, the film becomes increasingly more convoluted until it reaches a completely irrational ending. Truly, there is no way of making sense of this film, as its separate layers of real-life and premonition, and the time shifts that this results in, make it impossible to define what exactly is happening. It appears that Shinozaki completely disregarded the value of logic when making this film.

Perhaps the issue is not that the film is irrational, but that its narrative structure is unclear due to a complete disregard of form. Besides the extremely low production values—it appears shot on a first generation iPhone at best—Shinozaki pays no attention to the axis of action nor to spatial relations. The film’s disorienting qualities first seems to be a deliberate stylistic nuance, but it quickly becomes clear that it is truly an example of bad filmmaking.

To top it off, the actors are terrible in their roles; more like caricatures, less like humans. It’s difficult to blame them, however, considering the faultiness of the script. An actor can’t seem natural when their dialogue and emoting don’t make sense.

In brief, the only redeeming quality of this film is its ambition. The energy of Sharing’s formal design and the lengths taken to craft a film about such a complex subject is not to be ignored. While the film is complete nonsense, its subject matter is quite intriguing and deserved for once to be treated seriously in film. It’s unfortunate then that the film works better as a facetious joke than as serious philosophy.


Dir. Isamu Hirabayashi

In a pursuit to convey a pure image of a disaster area, Hirabayashi chose to film a man slowly walking through a disaster area by tracing his steps. His journey is not captured in point of view photography, but in a constant long take of his legs and feet as he traverses along the beaten ground. With the formal dimensions of a militant video game, Soliton is decidedly disorienting, as war must be. The image is an abstract of the complete picture; his legs become our point of reference.

Until much later, there are no establishing shots while this unnamed man slowly walks through the rubble. It is unclear what he is walking through, although the sounds of gun-fire and radio-noise imply that it is a place of great danger or catastrophe: a war scene or disaster area—or both. As he passes through greater expanses of debris, he appears to have reached a site, perhaps a home. He walks towards something, but this is kept out of frame due to the film’s visual restraint. Finally, something enters the frame. What this is explains both his mission and his actions.

Completing the film, a number of establishing shots tell retroactively where the man walked. A disaster area is shown, and one realizes the scene is the aftermath of the Tokohu Tsunami. This makes sense, as the title of the film, Soliton, is a scientific term to describe a particular set of waves, which are perhaps naturally occurring in tsunami. The film thereby continues to use abstraction and reference to render a pure, unblemished account of tsunami damage, one complemented with music, silence, and graphic image. Overall, the film is an impressive visual exercise which is far more informing than might seem on the surface.


About Author

Kamran's areas of interest include formalism, realism & reality, affect, and notions of the aesthetic. With experiences as a TA, an event panelist, a presenter at conferences from UofT to Harvard, and a writer of a self-authored film blog, Kamran would like to share with others his profound interest in the profilmic in the hopes of inspiring, in them, a similar love for film.