“From a journalistic point of view the film is perhaps not as important as her Oscar-winning Citizenfour (on Edward Snowden’s revelations) or Risk (on Julian Assange), but artistically All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is Poitras’ greatest achievement yet.”
Nan Goldin is one of her generation’s most pre-eminent and influential visual artists and photographers. Creating deeply personal portraits of herself and the marginalized communities she has been a part of has led her work to be exhibited in some of the world’s most famous museums. Given that her work has always been political, even if it took other people to point this out to her, the fact that besides being an artist she also became an activist after going through a seminal period in her life is not surprising. Leveraging her standing in the art world to effect change when it comes to said world’s donorships, in particular through battling a family that owns the pharmaceutical company responsible for the opioid crisis raging across America, Goldin fights the enemy from within. She is now the subject of the latest documentary by Laura Poitras, a director whose much-lauded work is filled with portraits of people trying to fight what they perceive as injustice perpetrated by a force bigger than them in David vs. Goliath-like battles. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, a strikingly poetic title taken from a Rorschach test response by Goldin’s late sister Barbara while being medically assessed, successfully weaves together three deeply personal strands from Goldin’s life to create a portrait of an artist whose personal involvement through both her work and her activism is bent on making the world a better place.
The first strand is also the one that hits closest to home for Goldin, as it involves traumatic events from her childhood that shaped her as a person. Her big sister Barbara was someone she looked up to as a child living in the Boston suburbs in the late ’50s and early ’60s. When Barbara started to show an interest in other girls, however, Goldin’s regressive parents had the girl institutionalized. At the age of 18 Barbara took her own life, when Nan herself was 11. The tragedy was the first source of inspiration for Goldin’s transgressive art and a deeply rooted rejection of authority figures, starting with her parents. When, many years later, she comes across another group of people at the top of the food chain that inflicted damage on her and many other Americans, Goldin instinctively fights back. Only this time she has power.
The second through line is Goldin’s art. She was always attracted to the marginalized subcultures that she, as a lesbian, inherently was a part of; first in Boston, and later in her Bowery neighbourhood in New York’s Lower Manhattan area, she began photographing her friends, many of them gay, transgender, or drag queens. Her images of these countercultures didn’t conform to any of the preconceived notions of what art photography was at the time, and it took a while for her artistry to be recognized. Most of her work documented her friends or herself in their daily lives, through the good and often bad times. Substance abuse and the AIDS epidemic ravaged the communities she was part of, most of her subjects having fallen victim to one or the other once the ’90s came around.
This connects to the third story in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, based in Goldin’s own opioid addiction, which she overcame in the 2010s. After reading about a failed effort to make Narcan, an overdose-reversing and lifesaving medicine, easily available in Massachusetts, Goldin decided to act. Together with other artists and activists she founded P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), an organization dedicated to advocating for harm reduction and overdose prevention. One of their main targets? The Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of the highly addictive painkiller OxyContin that has already caused an estimated half million deaths in the US. Aggressive marketing campaigns have misled doctors and users alike, even if Purdue and the Sacklers knew of the drug’s addictiveness.
The Sacklers are an important name in the art world as well, however. Through donations to museums and other art institutions the family has cemented their name in art circles, that name more often than not adorning whole museum wings. Goldin and her organization fight to force museums to remove the Sackler name and reject the blood money through coordinated actions on location. Organizing lie-downs at the Tate museum or littering the Guggenheim with thousands of OxyContin prescriptions, slowly the activism wins out, with the National Portrait Gallery in London the first to break ties with the Sacklers. The Tate and the Louvre soon follow, triggering a domino effect that culminates in the Met removing the Sackler name from its premises.
The strength of Poitras’ work in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is the way she manages to interweave these three strands to put forth an intriguing and impressive portrait of an individual willing to lay everything on the line against social injustice. All the more so because Goldin is not often on screen except in archive material, even if she tells most of her story herself. This was done through audio interviews Poitras had with Goldin, which gave the latter more control over what could enter the documentary and what could not. Given some of the more harrowing personal details that made it in, Goldin seems to have trusted Poitras, and that trust pays off. The parallels between the trauma of Goldin’s childhood, that of AIDS decimating her community, and that of opioids devastating the American community as a whole is a thread well-woven by Poitras, who punctuates the narrative by using Goldin’s work as transitional scenes. It’s a smart way of using Goldin’s activism to show her art, but also shows how art can be used to change the world. As such, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is a powerful work that in time will be ranked among the better Golden Lion winners (only the second documentary to win the coveted prize, after Gianfranco Rosi’s Sacro GRA in 2013). From a journalistic point of view the film is perhaps not as important as her Oscar-winning Citizenfour (on Edward Snowden’s revelations) or Risk (on Julian Assange), but artistically All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is Poitras’ greatest achievement yet.