Its title derived from photographer Nan Goldin‘s sister’s poetic reply to a Rorschach test, Laura Poitras‘s widely lauded, Oscar-nominated, razor sharp new doc All The Beauty And The Bloodshed (2022) stays the course of that particular blend of the private and the political forged by the director, balancing danger and controversy with intimate insight, just as her previous work, but with a twist. This time, it makes for a much more personal ride. And profoundly so.
Poitras and Goldin were made for each other. Both incredibly gutsy and uninterested in no-go zones, both fiercely independent and talented, and both prone to slaying dragons of substantial calibre.
“The wrong things are kept secret in society,” says Nan Goldin, and offers a narration to the fascinating reel of her life, with a great depth of emotion. The footage is raw and moving, it grips you from the first smudged B/W shot of the celebrated photographer as teen, the lush & lively drag-queendom of Boston, to Goldin’s bold, eerie, devastating curation of the 1989 NYC exhibition Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, examining the AIDS crisis. The archivist and portraitist of the marginalised, the queer, the bohemian, the original — her tribe — Nan allows lives to unfold before her in all their gore and glory, and offers the integrity to match them, with characteristic candour and grit.
Despite Poitras being a powerful storyteller in her own right, this doc lives and breaths Goldin’s indefatigable spirit. It is a mark of a great filmmaker (and artist) to know when to step back, and let your subject fill the screen with their presence. The space Goldin gave to her own subjects, Poitras gives to Goldin.
Yet, this was never supposed to be a biopic. It began with Nan Goldin, herself, recording her activist group PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) — a grassroots outcry in the wake of the opioid crisis in USA, a group which she helped found. PAIN is dedicated in engaging in sophisticated direct actions, primarily against the Sackler family, pharma billionaires and philantropists, major patrons of the arts. The reason? Sacklers, as owners of Purdue Pharma, were behind the manufacture of OxyContin, an opioid mostly prescribed for postoperative pain relief. Goldin, and many others, became addicted to it. The mission of PAIN is to alert the public to the large number overdoses allegedly connected to the addiction to OxyContin, and hold the Sackler family accountable — as well as demand the removal of the family name from major museums across the Western world, which count the Sacklers amongst their chief donors. The doc was aimed at following their public and legal battle.
Only then Poitras came in, both artists admiring each other greatly. Influenced by Goldin’s art in her own work, especially her cinematic slide-shows, Poitras was the indeed the perfect fit.
Weaving the past and the present as a master craftsman she is, it became clear that this is also the story about Goldin, and her own path, which converged with the paths of multitudes. This amped the story to an entirely different level, charged with the breathtaking images that are Goldin’s curriculum vitae.
This, in turn, produced the only glitch in the rich and vast tapestry of this doc. The personal, in its visceral magnitude, inevitably overtook the political. The focus pull was too strong.
Goldin’s story is one of beauty and survival. Growing up in difficult family circumstances, in the aftermath of the tragic suicide of her sister Barbara, photography became both her witness and her protection. Her own life has been one of extremes, from prolific artistic activity in the heart of NYC avant-garde scene, to sex work, drug addiction, horrific battery, to the Met, the Guggenheim, and world fame. Goldin insists in the dignity of all her worldly incarnations, without a trace of a sense of victimisation or lack of agency. She is a committed to lifting the stigma from both addiction and sex work, and very conscious of how shame and the constant threat of incarceration savage the vulnerable and in every way marginalised. Her activism is of a similar fortitude, insisting on shifting both the shame and criminality onto the people she considers culpable for the opiod crisis, as well as living life on one’s own terms.
Even though this important (and also perfectly scored) doc at times loses its balance between Goldin’s life and her activism with PAIN (and a few significant activist triumphs), it is still a deeply touching, mesmerising watch, with Goldin taking one’s breath away just by being so uncompromisingly real.
Author: ©Milana Vujkov