Nan Goldin never held back on sharing her life; it’s her artistic signature. The photographer’s 1986 slide show “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” presaged her rise in the Downtown New York art world by revealing the drugs and sex and abuse in her own life, as well as those of her friends.
“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” began when Goldin sought a producer for a documentary she was making. A recovering OxyContin addict, Goldin launched advocacy group Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (P.A.I.N.) and wanted to complete a film about its art-museum protests against Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family. With protests at The Met, The Guggenheim, The Louvre, and other art institutions, P.A.I.N. demanded that the museums stop accepting Sackler money and take their names off their walls.
Goldin wanted Poitras to tell the story of P.A.I.N. — but Poitras wanted to tell the story of Goldin.
“She has fully rejected the status quo in normative society,” said Poitras in a recent interview with IndieWire. “And has throughout her life. No interest. It’s not even like as a political gesture. It’s like, ‘Fuck that.’ She and her friends are pioneers just basically saying: ‘This society, we do not accept the rules of this game.’ It’s been throughout her work.”
Poitras has long been attracted to social-critic outsiders for her films, including Edward Snowden (Oscar-winning “Citizenfour”) and Julian Assange (“Risk”). Goldin does not carry shame, whether she’s talking about bad boyfriends, illicit drugs, or sex work. “Throughout her life, she’s been compelled to respond to the world that she’s living in,” said Poitras. “She’s somebody who is being motivated as an artist by what she needs to say, without always so much reflecting on it.”
Poitras said she started documenting Goldin’s contemporary activism, but soon found herself wanting to talk more about the rest of Goldin’s life. “There was a shift,” said Poitras. “As every film happens, you start to learn more, and then, ‘Oh, we need to talk about other things.’ “
Photo courtesy of Nan Goldin.
That’s when Poitras, with help from the late Participant executive Diane Weyermann, made a deal with Goldin to do a series of audio interviews at her house. “I knew it was going to give me a kind of intimacy that wouldn’t be there if there was a camera and a crew,” said Poitras. “It was just an instinct.”
In their first interview, which Poitras describes as “really emotionally intense,” the artist talked about being sent to foster care. “I was so deeply moved by how she spoke about her life,” said Poitras. “She was very raw and very unfiltered.”
The filmmakers created a safety net. “Nan and I could speak really freely,” said Poitras. “And she would have an opportunity later before it would be shared with anyone wider to see if there was anything that went too far. And when we had a cut, before we showed even Diane, nobody saw anything until Nan could have the opportunity to hear. There wasn’t really anything that she asked us to remove from the film.”
In fact, Goldin only wanted to reveal more. In one case, Poitras spoke to Goldin about the photographs where she had been beaten by her then-boyfriend Brian. “I didn’t ask about their relationship or the love story,” said Poitras. “And then, when we shared the first cut, she was like, ‘We need to talk more and and return to that story. Because it wasn’t truthful, to not also talk about that.’ Her collaboration made the film deeper.”
Courtesy of Neon
Goldin previously dealt with some of these intimate moments in her own work, but this was different. “She’s driven by sharing her own stories that are destigmatized,” said Poitras. “Sex work in particular, that was something that it’s important to talk about because of the stigma, not because she wanted to reveal it. There’s a kind of emotional bravery that I’ve never experienced. And not somebody who’s just emotionally brave in their intimate relationships, but emotionally brave in sharing with a public. That’s pretty rare.” (The movie’s end is a shocker that Poitras prefers that the film reveal on its own terms.)
But with all of these personal details, “I didn’t want to make a biopic,” Poitras said. “I’m not a biographer. I wanted to create juxtapositions and historical connections and emerge with a portrait of an artist. I definitely wanted to avoid any kind of narrative of there’s this artist done in by their demons: I’m not interested in that story.”
The story Poitras does tell is how Goldin’s life and work intersect with her activism. The editing team, led by Joe Bini (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”), found a way to assemble the complex layers.
“Joe Bini had these ideas of the interweaving of past and present and an inner and outer world,” Poitras said. “It was very [challenging] to keep the drama and the subtlety and subtext and that storyline going. And pointing the blame where it belongs: to the Sackler family, and a society that doesn’t hold people accountable, or provide health care for its citizens. I was cautious about certain pitfalls of genres and wanting to do something that is much more of a societal critique, while also being a portrait. I hope it does both.”
“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” reveals the unexpected success of Goldin’s anti-Sackler museum campaign, but it doesn’t replace the pain and suffering. This is captured in one extraordinary scene as Poitras films Goldin participating in a court-mandated Zoom in which the Sackler family was forced to witness first-hand stories of the suffering they caused. The camera closes in on Theresa Sackler, impassive, as she listens to a mother play her a 911 call as her only child was dying. “They didn’t shed a tear,” said Poitras.
In addition to winning the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival, “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” picked up key nominations from the CCA Documentary Awards, Cinema Eye Honors, and IDA Awards, as well as a place on the predictive DOC NYC shortlist. It’s intense — and a major player in this year’s awards scrum.
Neon releases the film in NY theaters on Wednesday, November 23; LA theaters on Friday, December 2; and wide theaters on Friday, December 9.