Documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras typically focuses on what she calls “individuals facing abuses of power, especially in the context of the United States” – such as Julian Assange, or Edward Snowden, the subject of her Oscar-winning film Citizenfour. Her new work, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, documenting what some might consider a mere photographer of subcultures, can be seen as a slight change of direction. But even though the film has already won a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and is now up for an Oscar, that would be an underestimation of her latest subject, Nan Goldin, both as a performer and, especially in the latter. decade. or so, an activist.
Goldin, 69, is one of the big game-changers. Her seminal book and slideshow (her favorite format), The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, was like a lightning bolt when it was first displayed at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1985. Unlike her predecessor Diane Arbus, with who she is sometimes lumped together (which she doesn’t much like), Goldin’s way of capturing life in New York was to turn her camera on her own life and point her intrepid lens at the drag performers, club kids, drug addicts and con artists who made her up. group of friends to show them partying, fighting, breaking up, dreaming, bonding with their kids, doing drugs and having sex in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
With their surprising candor and their intoxicating mix of rawness and tenderness, her photographs immediately became the benchmark for the stream of confessional photography that followed. Since coming up with The Ballad, which remains her best-known project, Goldin’s work has been exhibited in galleries from the Tate Modern to the Art Institute of Chicago, the Albertina in Vienna and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
But in recent years it has also started to cause seismic shifts elsewhere. In 2017, Goldin founded PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) to protest the branch of the Sackler family involved in Purdue Pharma, which manufactured and distributed Oxycontin (a substance that, when Goldin was prescribed for a wrist injury, led to that they have their own opioid addiction) and their attempt to clear their name by sponsoring art spaces. The impact on the art world is shockingly visible – since Goldin began her campaign, the National Gallery, the V&A, Tate, the British Museum and the Serpentine, along with the Louvre, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum have all removed the Sackler name from their premises, while the National Portrait Gallery rejected a £1 million Sackler donation at the time of fundraising for the £35 million capital project.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed follows Goldin’s activism. It begins with the situationist protests Goldin staged in the world’s most famous galleries, where she and her allies dropped thousands of counterfeit prescriptions into the silent lobbies of the Guggenheim or the Met, filling the fountains and water features with pill bottles.
“When she and I first sat down, she had already done some of the big protests,” Poitras says. “I had read about it in the papers. I’d seen the Met, and the pictures. I was excited. I loved that Nan used her position of power in the art world to demand accountability. It hit a nerve with me. And I had no idea she was filming. And so when we sat down to talk about something else, she said, ‘Oh, I filmed everything, I’d like to ask you some questions,’ and I just said, ‘Everything. All you need.’ If she had said she wanted me to charge batteries for cameras, for example, I would have done that.’
Someone else was found to charge the camera’s batteries, and Poitras came up with a project that would document the protests while also telling the extraordinary story of Goldin’s life and art. “Of course I’ve known Nan Goldin’s work for as long as I’ve been an artist,” says Poitras. “I came across her work when I was in art school many years ago. In the late 1980s I lived in San Francisco and I had a roommate who was from Boston and she was a photographer. She had one of the first copies of [the book of] The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, first published in 1986.
“And you know, it’s so radical, so groundbreaking. This female artist, so cinematic, so intimate, the sexuality. You felt the intimacy. Her work has always resonated with me as an artist-filmmaker. Even though I do it in very different ways than Nan, I am someone who uses a camera to express my relationship with the world.”
In addition to following Goldin’s tireless activism, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed also delves into the artist’s own story, which is poignant: her sister’s suicide, for which she blames much of the middle-class expectations of her parents; physically abusive relationships; a stint as a sex worker… which Goldin doesn’t shy away from in Poitras’ film. The audio interviews that appear are the result of hundreds of hours of conversation.
“We did it every Saturday for a year and a half. I’d go to her house, we’d procrastinate for hours, we’d order food, we’d watch a movie knowing we had some work to do and record a few hours. A lot of the themes in the movie are intense and heavy, it takes time to build up a bit.
Were there any topics that Goldin was hesitant to discuss? “Nan is as raw and honest as in her photos. If you met her and she had something to say about something you wrote, you would hear it. She’s very direct. So the interviews were right away… the first interview, there are big parts that are in the film. I wanted to take it really slow, and there’s a kind of intensity. I wanted to elaborate on each of the different stages of her life.”
Goldin’s time as a sex worker in New York was the one topic that had not been discussed before and about which there was some hesitation. “Before we did the interview, she said, ‘I think I need to talk about it.’ But we went back and forth: if you’re ready, we’ll do it, and if you’re not ready, we won’t. It’s up to you. I’ve always given her agency in the process, as if she had decided, you know, I don’t think I can share that with so many people that this movie will be seen, then I would have respected that.
“She needs to have choice and feel comfortable sharing,” Poitras continues. “And it’s important to mention that the reason she’s sharing it is because there’s so much stigma around so many issues, like sex work, so that’s why she wanted to talk about it. Because of the stigma. To destigmatize it for others. And so are other parts of the film. “
What surprised Poitras most about her subject? “The honesty, the raw honesty. The fact that she was willing to be so brave with the movie and the process. But I didn’t want it to be salacious in any way. It was ok, but what is the reason for this? Especially around someone who talks about such painful experiences, there has to be a purpose. And again… these interviews destigmatize things that are kept secret: that literally kills people if they don’t seek help because they are worried and ashamed of something. So it’s about doing away with that, and then putting shame where it belongs. In this case, it’s the Sacklers.’
The nomination for All The Beauty and the Bloodshed is Poitras’ third Oscar nomination; the first was in 2007 for My Country, My Country, about the Iraq War; the second, which became a win, was in 2015 for Citizenfour. I wonder how Poitras feels about making her Snowden movie ten years later?
“Making it was pretty scary. Certain periods were particularly scary, when I wasn’t sure if we would all come out okay. None of us are in prison and yes, the movie itself probably gave me some degree of protection because it was respected by people. Without the international support for journalism, we would have been in deeper trouble.
“I wish more countries had signed up to offer him asylum,” she says. ‘They could have done that. There are many powerful countries in Europe that are grateful that Edward Snowden revealed what he did, and I wish they would act to grant him asylum.”
She feels the same way about another of her previous subjects. “The case of Julian Assange is really terrible at the moment. You have the US trying to indict a journalist and put him in prison for the rest of his life. I mean, that’s terrifying. The UK, Ireland, Europe must all stand up and defend Julian Assange because if he is sent to the US every journalist is in danger.”
How does she feel about the political situation in the US in general? “It’s terrifying. And I don’t mean that in a partisan sense, I mean in a failed government sense. We don’t have a functioning government, we don’t have health care systems, we put money into the military, we have these horrible political parties that are run by money on both sides. As a result, situations such as the overdose crisis can get out of hand. People knew about it thanks to great investigative journalism in the early 2000s, and the government did nothing. They stood by.
“So you have a death toll that… every year it’s 100,000. At the beginning of this movie, Nan sang 100,000 dead. In the end, there are 400,000. So the situation in the US, all the money we put into these failed occupations will bring generations of suffering. And from an international perspective, the American empire has wreaked so much havoc.” Poitras is also not a fan of Biden. “It is very disappointing that people in Washington are lining up to take on Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders had real momentum. I think he was the best candidate we’ve seen in a long time, and that didn’t happen, so…”
We go on. We talk about how good it would be if young people who had never heard of Nan Goldin were moved after seeing the film to further explore her work and adopt her attitude to life.
“I hope so,” says Poitras. “I often do interviews and there is a lot of talk about the gore, but maybe not enough about the beauty. I just think there are so many parts of this movie that are really relevant to young people today, and it really celebrates people who are artists and do things by their own rules. It’s a very dark political landscape that we live through, the failure of governments. But there are individuals who do great things. Nan is one of them.”
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is now in cinemas