Regarding the Pain of Others

Melissa Anderson on Susan Sontag’s Promised Lands

Susan Sontag, Promised Lands, 1974, still from a color film in 16 mm, 87 minutes.

THE PUBLICATION LATE LAST YEAR of Susan Sontag’s Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963 revealed the most intimate details of the great American intellectual’s private life, fiercely guarded while she was alive. Yet one major aspect of Sontag’s public life—her career as a filmmaker—remains underexplored, her work rarely screened. A cinephile and tireless champion of avant-garde and “difficult” films, Sontag longed to be a director. “I would have taken any offer to just show I could do it,” she once said. “I would have gone to Afghanistan.” Her first two movies, Duet for Cannibals (1969) and Brother Carl (1971), took her to Sweden; her third, and only documentary, Promised Lands (1974), to Israel during the final days and aftermath of the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Her fourth and final project, Unguided Tour (1983), based on her short story of the same name, led her to Venice.

Sontag considered Promised Lands, an oblique yet powerful examination of the Arab-Israeli conflict, her most personal film; compared with the psychodramas Duet for Cannibals and Brother Carl (I have yet to see Unguided Tour), it is certainly her most deeply felt, even within its elliptical structure. (Promised Lands might also be thought of as a “family film”: It was produced by the French actress Nicole Stéphane, Sontag’s then girlfriend, and David Rieff, Sontag’s son, twenty-one at the time, is credited as assistant director.)

Promised Lands forgoes narration, subtitles (when Hebrew or Arabic is spoken), and identification of any of those who speak in the film, including the two men—articulating their thoughts on the question of Palestinian rights—who give the film a dialectical structure (the first is Israeli writer Yoram Kaniuk; the second, Israeli physicist Yuval Ne’eman). Instead, Promised Lands assembles a fascinating collage of sounds (heart-monitor beeps, radio broadcasts, pounding hammers, keening) and images (charred bodies of soldiers in the desert, davening at the Wailing Wall, posters for Lady Sings the Blues, wax-museum figurines that recount Israeli history). “The Jews know drama, but they don’t know tragedy,” Kaniuk says in Promised Lands. This cryptic aphorism undoubtedly appealed to Sontag, one of the greatest aphorists of the twentieth century. But her task as a filmmaker, arriving at the end of a war, was not to offer punchy statements or answers but to explore, probe, and circle back to monumental questions.

A special revival engagement of Promised Lands runs February 4–10, 2010 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. For more details, click here.