In All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, Laura Poitra’s poignant portrait of photographer Nan Goldin, so many moving parts mesh so seamlessly that it feels like multiple films have been fused into one. Inheriting the unflinching yet righteous spirit of her collaborative subject matter, the film revolves around the intersection of art, addiction and activism, reflecting on Goldin’s pioneering work and its often traumatic sources, while also tracing the artist’s violent campaign against the Sackler family’s billionaire museum Patrons who may have played a role in the decades-long opioid crisis.
“I’m a little nervous about the biopic genre, aren’t I?” admitted Poitras, who has been both acclaimed and scrutinized for a series of documentaries that confront the realities of the post-9/11 world with a newsmaking urgency. Her 2014 film Citizenfour, about whistleblower Edward Snowden, won the documentary Oscar. Still, Goldin’s life story has much in common with the filmmaker’s other works, in which individuals take enormous risks to confront forces beyond them. As Poitras puts it, “A renowned artist with tremendous power in the art world decides to use her power to take action against the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, makers of OxyContin.
The documentary, which won the Golden Lion for Best Picture at this year’s Venice International Film Festival, moves back and forth in time. Chronicling Goldin’s rise through the New York underground art scene of the 1970s and 1980s, fueled by her autobiographical work-in-progress The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, it further digs into the artist’s childhood trauma and tragic loss her age sister. Other recent Verite sequences follow the artist, who narrowly survived an OxyContin addiction and led her activist group PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) in a series of protests that persuaded museums worldwide to sever their ties to the Sackler family.
Flashbacks to the AIDS crisis that decimated the bohemian downtown New York that Goldin nurtured and the confrontational work of activist group ACT UP serve as a powerful parallel to the photographer’s current mission. It also evokes the so-called “culture wars” of the 1980s, so oddly timely in today’s polarized political landscape.
“It’s fine on paper – but it takes time,” Poitras said of the film’s structure. The filmmaker and her editors Joe Bini and Amy Foote are inspired by Lynne Ramsay’s 2011 drama We Need to Talk About Kevin, which Bini also edited. “Joe had some really strong ideas about how to create this nexus between the past and the present.”
The film raises a question, Foote said. “What is it about this woman who is capable of relentlessly chasing after people and taking such great risks? By contrasting her past, her inner story is a window into answering that question,” the editor added. “There’s so much stillness in her backstory, the in and out of it creates an interesting dynamic. That [activist] The story is so loud and loud and chaotic and then you just go quiet.”
The centerpiece of the film is Goldin’s own voice, recorded by Poitras in a series of conversations, overlaying different periods of time with a penetrating and eloquent frankness. “These interviews with Nan are just very powerful and emotional,” said Poitras. “And you sensed that the first time we sat down and talked, that there’s an unfilteredness and rawness [and] The way it worked with her images was really impressive.” During these sessions, Poitras kept the camera off. “It would never have been possible to achieve that kind of intimacy if there was a crew in the room,” she said. “She speaks so bravely about her life and it was only possible because we were alone.”
The sense of urgency that pervades Poitras’ films grows throughout All the Beauty, even more so with the unexpected arrival of a mysterious figure who begins shadowing Goldin’s activist group. “That’s the playbook, right?” said Poitras. “It’s pure intimidation.” The inclusion of the mystery man introduces an anxious atmosphere familiar from her films. The filmmaker managed to identify the man who was also spoken to, but decided not to focus further on his presence. “He was just a working-class guy who didn’t know who hired him,” she said. “He didn’t know who he was following.”
The drama pushes the story to its emotional climax as Goldin’s once-seemingly otherworldly campaign shakes the museum world to its core. “It took a long time,” said Poitras. “But then it happened. In that sense, it’s a hopeful story. The direct action that a small group of people meeting in someone’s living room can take against a billionaire family.”
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/awards/story/2022-11-29/all-the-beauty-and-bloodshed-nan-goldin-laura-poitras ‘All the Beauty and Bloodshed’ follows artist-activist Nan Goldin