Nan Goldin’s art is destined for the big screen – and her life demands to be understood by the world. A great meeting of minds comes to be with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras for All The Beauty and The Bloodshed – Contributing Writer Anahit Behrooz meets the director.
Acclaimed documentarian Laura Poitras is known for films that live beyond the screen, that hold some of the most powerful people in the world to account – the NSA, the US government, the profiteers of the war on terror. Her latest film, the Golden Lion-winning All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, is less explicitly political in its subject matter but, because of this, is perhaps her most overtly so to date.
Part-creative-biography, part-almost-thriller, it follows the life and work of queer artist Nan Goldin and her campaign against billionaire philanthropist Sackler family, whose exploitation of the pain medication industry compounded America’s nationwide opioid crisis and the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives. Tangling together narratives of intimacy and power, and the interfering structures that make one subject to the other, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is a near operatic staging of the failures of the American social system told through the remarkable determination of one woman. “It’s easy to make your life look like a story,” Goldin says ruefully at the start of the film. Yet what Poitras has achieved looks anything but easy.
Focusing on the relentless pressure that Goldin places on the art world – the Met, the V&A, the Louvre – to remove the Sackler name from their galleries and wings, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed literalises the politics of the personal, positioning Goldin’s activism within a broader lifetime of systemic loss: the childhood suicide of her sister, the slaughter of the AIDS crisis, society’s ceaseless imperilling of marginalised groups.
Among the cast of Goldin’s beloved community, past and present, who appear is seminal 1980s artist David Wojnarowicz, a man who once famously attended a demonstration wearing a bejewelled jacket that proclaimed, IF I DIE OF AIDS—FORGET BURIAL—JUST DROP MY BODY ON THE STEPS OF THE FDA. Like Poitras, and like Goldin, he was keenly aware of the ways in which certain bodies are made vulnerable, and of the clenched-jaw power of refusing to die quietly.
As the Sackler name continues to bleed slowly off of institution walls, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed stands as a different kind of monument, a sumptuous, once-in-a-generation testament to the unmemorialised, a collaged yet propulsive narrative of rebellion. We spoke to Poitras about the entanglement between art and power, delving into the queer archive, and the prickly nature of documenting truth.
It struck me throughout All the Beauty and the Bloodshed that there are two kinds of art being shown - the institutional and the underground - and that neutrality of art is a really interesting contrast to the idyllic way we think about it. Do you think of art as something equally capable of obscuring and illuminating power?
One of the themes of the film is art in a very pure way. Nan's art is driven by her experience. She knows things in her body and that's what she makes work about - she often talks about her camera as a way to walk through fear. And then you have David Wojnarowicz in the film, who is also this incredible artist. Their work is alive in its immediacy and expressiveness and voice, and I think there's something about art in this purer way that can challenge and confront power. And that is really separate from anything you would call the art world.
Nan is really interesting because her work, on the one hand, is very intimate. It's about her life and the people that she knows, but yet it's also profoundly political. She brings those two things together, and from there into activism.
Do you think there's something innate to the art world that helps disguise exploitation? I’m thinking of the Sacklers essentially laundered their name by binding it up in these institutions.
Yeah, absolutely. They absolutely whitewashed their money – or art-washed it. But you don't have to look hard to find this sort of power dynamic within institutions that predate the Sacklers. Look at colonialism, you know, the pillaging of artefacts from other other countries and then putting them here in the British Museum.
I'm interested in the entanglement between what you do as a documentarian and what Nan does as a photographer – do you think of both photography and documentary as an act of bearing witness to truth? Or do you think the idea of truth is more complicated?
It's a really interesting question. I mean, yes, truth is complicated. And you can never ignore that there's a perspective behind a camera – it's a subjective rendering. But I do feel compelled to present different truths than what the mainstream media presents or what my government presents. And I do believe there is…maybe not a truth, but something that is not up for grabs. It’s not some postmodern thing. Nan took real risks to do the work that she did, or Edward Snowden took real risks, and I want to document those risks. Nan talks about her work as a diary that nobody can change.
Are you ever afraid? You’re speaking back against such powerful forces.
Yeah, of course. I'm thinking more about exposing the NSA here, but yeah. I don't sleep too well. But I'm also really proud to have done work where I'm actually on their radar.
Has there been any kind of response from the Sacklers about this film?
Not directly to me. They have an army of lawyers so we imagine they were probably at Venice. The truth is, when Nan started organising against them, they were more powerful than they are now. The risks were really real for her career and for the people she was organising with.
But then we see throughout the film how these institutions drop their name eventually – we can see their power wear down. It’s funny, I spent so much of my undergrad in the Sackler Library…
Oh, you did?
Yeah. So this film felt very surreal.
And is there still a Sackler library?
I checked and yes. There isn’t even a conversation about removing the name. I mean, you were talking about the US empire, but the UK is also like that.
I do want to dig into the American quality of this film a bit though. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is about Nan Goldin and the opioid crisis, but it is also more broadly about this kind of politics of vulnerability. It feels as much a film about America as about Nan – I don’t know if that’s a very dramatic statement.
But it’s true. It's definitely such an American story in the sense of both the Sacklers’ cultural impunity and the complete failure of any kind of regulatory system. You have the FDA allowing the Sacklers to put on labels that downplay the addictive properties of oxycontin. These are deeply American narratives; I don't know if the same thing could be possible here.
I guess it’s to do with how healthcare functions in the US as well.
Definitely! It was so important to put the AIDS crisis and what Nan was doing there in juxtaposition with today’s overdose crisis. Partly because the film is about her and she experienced both losses, but also because I hoped to have that societal critique. The film reflects back the failure of society to protect people, and its repeated rewarding of profiteering: I wanted to focus on people who are being hurt but to shift the lens back towards power. Nan talks a lot about destigmatising things like drug use, and instead stigmatising toxic philanthropy. Putting the spotlight on these cultural institutions and asking them not just to look at the Sackler name but other names, in a way that pushes ideas of shame back towards the institutions.
The bloodshed in this film is writ large through all of this. But there's also so much beauty, especially in your and Nan’s depiction of the queer community of the ‘70s and ‘80s. It’s really interesting how this beauty comes from its dissident nature: it goes against classical ideas of beauty as perfect and normative.
Yeah, that totally resonates. David Wojnarowicz has this line where he says, “We can never rely on the mass media to reflect us or our needs or our states of mind.” It’s not even about breaking into mass media. It's about forming alternatives. Nan's photography is about celebrating beauty and it really is a life force. And that beauty, it's just the beauty that she saw. This is what she was seeing and what she wanted to celebrate – it wasn’t consciously political, but at the same time it is so profoundly political. It was just basically like, fuck mainstream society.
All The Beauty And The Bloodshed is in cinemas now.