A version of this interview with “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” director Laura Poitras first appeared in the Guild & Critics Awards / Documentaries issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
Laura Poitras has made an art of holding powerful people accountable — whether it’s through her post-9/11 trilogy of documentaries that includes the Oscar-winning “Citizenfour” or via her study of Wikileaks and Julian Assange in “Risk.” Now, with “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” art itself is the means of interrogating power.
The film, which won the Golden Lion at Venice, is a portrait of Nan Goldin, the renowned photographer and activist who has shone a spotlight on the role in the opioid crisis of the billionaire Sackler family, whose company, Purdue Pharma, made and marketed OxyContin. Goldin and the group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) have pushed museums that have accepted donations from the Sacklers to sever all ties, staging demonstrations like the one that kicked it all off in 2018, when they threw prescription bottles into the Temple of Dendur in the Sackler Wing at the Met in New York.
A dialogue between past and present, the film interweaves archival footage and Goldin’s groundbreaking slideshows to delve into her (often painful) life story and explore how her work has always been inextricably tied to grassroots activism. We spoke to Poitras about collaborating with Goldin on her acclaimed film.
Nan Goldin and P.A.I.N. had been filming their demonstrations against the Sacklers for a while when she asked you to come on as director. What made you want to do it?
I was a bit nervous going into it because I’m like, it’s Nan Goldin. What can I contribute to this project? And I think she felt her own sense of nerves that she’s talked about. But I was really just drawn to it. It’s kind of similar to some of my other films, which usually focus on an individual or small group engaging in political action that’s changing the social landscape and critiquing power. I’ve known Nan’s artwork for as long as I’ve been making films and I love it, but the connection (that interested me most) was definitely the activism piece of it. As I learned more about her work and this show that she had curated during the AIDS crisis, (“Witness: Against Our Vanishing”), it also became about drawing these parallels between the federal government’s failure and the AIDS crisis and how it relates to the current government failure and the overdose crisis.
At the New York Film Festival, Nan said during a public Q&A that she’d worried she wasn’t important enough to have Laura Poitras direct her movie because she doesn’t have state secrets to disclose. That got a big laugh.
Right, she was worried about that. And I didn’t think I was important enough to make a film about Nan Goldin. I think we both were slightly intimidated. [Laughs]
Nan says in the film, “The wrong things are kept private in society and that destroys people,” which goes right to the heart of your movie. Nan discusses some deeply personal stuff (about her family and her addiction to OxyContin). I imagine it must have taken some time for the two of you to find your footing so she felt comfortable revealing so much.
I mean, for sure. Both in the process of this film and in her own work, she goes to a place that rarely artists go to, in terms of vulnerability and honesty. And as you said, this line that the wrong things are kept secret is one of the core themes of the film — that we live in societies where people feel shame around things. Nan’s political activism, it’s about destigmatizing, for instance, addiction. The reason she talks about these issues is to provide a way for people to understand that they’re not isolated, they’re not alone. And P.A.I.N. is very committed to shifting the shame — that the shame actually does not belong with individuals. It actually belongs in the billionaires that are profiting off people’s pain and knowingly promoting a drug that is causing mass death. So Nan was incredibly brave in her own work in terms of taking on these issues and then also trusting me.
The Sacklers obviously know your film exists, but do you have any idea if anyone from their giant hydra of an organization has seen it?
When we premiered it at Venice, we did the press conference, and we said, “Welcome, all the lawyers from the Sackler family who I anticipated to be joining in.” I mean, come on. Of course they had people going and seeing the film and taking notes and reporting back.
But you haven’t heard directly from them.
We reached out to them, of course (during production). They didn’t say much other than a non-denial denial about “untruths.” You know, “Of the $10 billion we took out of our company, we paid taxes and reinvested it in other associated companies.” As if that’s some kind of a defense.
Read more from the Guild & Critics Awards / Documentaries issue here.