Als Susan Sontag im Publikum saß / When Susan Sontag sat in the Audience

Director: Rolf Peter Kahl (Germany). Year of Release: 2022

This is the staged re-enaction of panel discussion that took place 50 years ago in New York Town Hall. The official title of the discussion was “A Dialogue on Women’s Liberation”, but Norman Mailer, who chaired, is seen here saying that it was supposed to be called Norman Mailer vs. Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston, Jaqueline Ceballos and Diana Trilling.

Mailer had released a book “The Prisoner of Sex” the previous year. It seems that this discussion was at least in part his attempt to reconciliate with the Women’s Liberation Movement, which he had attacked in the book. His 4 interviewees were all significant figures in that movement – Greer as the author of The Female Eunuch, Johnston as a poet, Ceballos as one of the leaders of the National Organisation of Women, and Trilling as a literary critic.

The film is not a standard documentary and breaks rules in a manner that is either inventive or infuriating, depending on your level of indulgence. Mailer is anachronistically played by someone with a shaved head, and some, but not all, of the audience are wearing FFP2 masks. Is this to show that the questions that were raised then are still relevant now? Well, if it is, the film shows very little curiosity in pursuing this aspect of the discussion.

Every so often filmed scenes of the play are interrupted by black and white shots of the actors, still sat on the stage, talking about the current relevance of the scenes that they are playing. This is a superb opportunity which is unfortunately wasted. Most of their “insights” are not very interesting, and tend towards “you can’t say anything nowadays because of the PC police”.

There is a scene in the play where Mailer is castigated by the eponymous Sontag for introducing Trilling as a “Lady Critic”. Mailer looks shamefaced like a guilty child who has been caught doing something wrong, even though he’s not exactly sure what it is that’s so bad. His defence is “look I’m on your side”, and while he doesn’t exactly say “some of my best friends are women”, he comes very close.

This is not annoying as such. Mailer does appear to have been very confused about the sexual revolution, having ideas that were progressive to a point, as long as they didn’t conflict with his macho world vision. A film which showed this conflict would indeed be very interesting. And yet, while the women are allowed to criticise him within limits, it feels like the film should not have been called When Susan Sontag was sitting in the Audience, but When Norman Mailer sat Up Front.

Mailer’s attempts to dominate the meeting – allocating himself almost as much time as he gives to all the women combined – are reflected in the scenes of the discussions between the actors. We hear a lot more from RP Kahl, the actor playing Mailer, than from anyone else. And just when you start thinking that’s not Kahl’s fault, after all it’s the director who chooses which footage makes the final cut, someone makes a chance remark which tells you that the director is RP Kahl.

For all this, there’s quite a bit of interesting stuff here. Each of the women is given 10 minutes to make their point, and we hear some of the important ideas produced by Second Wave Feminism that were revolutionary at the time. And yes, many of these demands have still not been met, although for me there was a little too much railing against “The Patriarchy” and not enough about the specific problems which women are forced to endure.

But we’re now coming close to my final problem. Second Wave Feminism was a huge step forward in raising the problems of everyday sexism, but it was never about all women. Not really. At one point someone does ask “but what of the women who don’t earn much money?”, before returning to the concerns of the decently paid middle class. This is an important theoretical debate to be sure, but it’s clear that not everyone has been allowed a seat on the table.

Reading what the critics have written, as I sometimes do, there does seem to be a dispute between one critic who objects to the lack of voices from (or even consideration of) poor Black women, and another who says that you can’t rewrite history – these were the people who spoke at the debate, which actually happened. Which is true, but the film’s director is still at liberty to choose which historical event he wants to re-enact and which he doesn’t.

Ultimately, this is a televisualisation of a historically important debate, with the participation of important speakers. Yes it is a drawback that they all come from the liberal academic left – the people who host their debates in a theatre in front of a (presumably) paying audience, but that’s not my biggest objection. I’m more worried about Mailer muscling into a debate in which his should be only a marginal opinion, and the film letting him get away with it.

So, it’s worth going to see this if you take your critical facilities with you, but I do have the feeling that it could have been so much better.

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