Artist Nan Goldin did not consider herself worthy enough to have director Laura Poitras make a documentary about her.
Poitras won an Oscar in 2015 for “Citizenfour,” about Edward Snowden, and was placed on a federal watch list after her 2006 Iraq war film “My Country, My Country.” Goldin remembers thinking, “I don’t have any state secrets” and “I don’t fight the machine the same way as everyone else it worked on.”
Poitras was also intimidated by Goldin. The photographer, who published her radical first collection, “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” in 1986, has chronicled her own life for decades in daringly intimate portraits of her friends, lovers, and herself. “I was kind of like, I don’t know if I’m done,” Poitras said. “What can I bring here?”
Together, however, they emerged with ‘All Beauty and Bloodshed’, which won the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in September. The festival’s top prize is a rarity for a documentary that exists itself outside the conventions of its genre.
Both a chronicle of Goldin’s activism in the face of the opioid crisis and a searing account of his artistic and political emergence, the film, in theaters November 23 juxtaposes excerpts from his anti-taboo image slideshows with footage from his protests with his group Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, or PAIN They were fighting the outsized influence that the Sackler family, which owned Purdue Pharma and was behind the proliferation of OxyContin, had on the fine arts world. “All the Beauty” deals with profound loss – including the suicide of Goldin’s older sister – while showing the power of community action. The result is an experience that is both painfully sad and uplifting.
Both Poitras and Goldin painted portraits throughout their careers and, as Poitras pointed out, “All the Beauty” is part of a long tradition of artists representing other artists. “There’s this kind of prism-like quality,” she said in a video interview.
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Goldin fiercely kept his own story but allowed Poitras in. “We’re two strong women who aren’t used to other people telling us that,” Goldin said in a separate interview at her Brooklyn apartment. “We are each the boss of ourselves; we are each the final world of ourselves and our work.
For Poitras, Goldin stood against powerful forces in a way that makes her a natural candidate for the filmmaker’s work. For Goldin, who also served as a producer, her activism was a byproduct of her way of life. “I think maybe the most important thing about my life’s work, outside of art, is that the work helps eradicate the stigma, about all these issues like suicide and depression, drug use, sex work and different forms of sexual identity,” Goldin said. , adding, “I never do the work to fight the stigma. I do the work because that’s what I live for and that’s what matters to me. And then later, I see building it as something that can help with the stigma.
The desire to document the work of PAIN was born before the arrival of Poitras. Goldin founded the organization just months after leaving a treatment program in 2017 for his addiction to OxyContin, which had developed three years earlier after wrist surgery. “People I’m very close to wanted to make sure I got back to work,” she said. “That was one of the motivations to start this film.”
A camera was on hand to capture PAIN’s protests and deaths at institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Harvard Art Museums, demanding that they stop taking Sackler’s money and remove the name from their buildings. The purpose of these public statements? As Goldin wrote in Artforum when founding PAIN: “To get their ear, we will target their philanthropy.”
(Last month, the Victoria and Albert Museum removed the Sackler name, leaving only one of the six museums PAIN protested at, the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard, with the moniker. In 2021, the Sacklers have agreed to a settlement in a decision that ended thousands of lawsuits and also shielded the family from civil lawsuits.)
Still, Goldin and his band needed producers. In 2019, she met one in Howard Gertler, whose credits included ACT UP’s David France exploration, “How to Survive a Plague.” At the time, he was working on a documentary about artist Peter Hujar, for which Goldin was interviewed. Coincidentally, shortly after, Goldin and Poitras, who had met in 2014, had lunch. Poitras said she encouraged Goldin and Gertler, whom she had known for years, to follow each other.
But Poitras kept thinking about the work PAIN was doing, challenging those in power and ultimately succeeding. “It just kept spinning in my head,” she said. “I was a bit obsessed.” She asked Gertler, who became one of several producers on the project, if they were looking for a director and ended up signing on later in 2019.
While it was the immediacy of PAIN’s calls for accountability that made Poitras think she was the right person for the material, she began to see the film as an interplay between past and present when Goldin told her about the fiery show she put on in 1989 during the AIDS crisis, “Witnesses: Against Our Disappearance.” Time spent with Goldin further complicated the structure.
“Her photographs have a rawness and emotional depth, and I felt the same about her voice and the way she spoke about her life,” Poitras said. “I was completely fascinated by it.”
Goldin can identify when she started trusting Poitras. She had allowed the documentarian to film her preparing “Memory Lost,” a slideshow that struggles with the experience of addiction, and “Sirens,” which combines film stills and a score by Mica Levi simulating the ‘highness. Poitras made some comments about the process.
“They were very intense, very difficult pieces,” Goldin said, explaining, “If I sit and watch an artist do something, I have to give my opinion. She’s kind of the same, I guess. His opinion was really good.
That trust was key to their work together, which deepened during the 2020 Covid lockdown, when Goldin sat down for a series of audio interviews with Poitras. “After we did the first one, it went very quickly to a high emotional place and then we took a step back,” Poitras said.
They established an agreement on how the process would unfold. Goldin could speak freely during their conversations, knowing that she would be involved in the material that would ultimately be used in the finished film. The interviews were so personal that Poitras treated them as she would treat the top secret documents she handled during her career. “They were on encrypted drives,” she said. “They were incredibly sensitive and completely ‘need to know’.”
After Goldin saw a cut in May, she relied on that deal to fix the issues she perceived. “It wasn’t the way I wanted to tell my story,” she said. They did more interviews. Its focus, Goldin said, was the accuracy of its own narrative. “It’s my voice that tells my story with my photos, so it has to be true to me, and it has to be true to what I want to say,” she said.
It was “absolutely collaborative,” Poitras said. They were still making changes even after the premiere in Venice.
In “All the Beauty”, Goldin opens up about her addiction, her experiences with sex work, and her abusive relationship with a boyfriend documented in “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency”. The title of the film, devised by Poitras, comes from the hospital records of Goldin’s sister, Barbara, who died by suicide at age 18. tragedies on screen but also a celebration of resistance.
“Goldin’s story of activism would make for a worthy film,” Sheri Linden of The Hollywood Reporter wrote in a review. “The story of his birth and his development as an artist would be too. His sister’s story pulls it all into another dimension, and the way Poitras and Goldin brought the threads together, into the light, is a distillation that may shake you. It’s art.” IndieWire called the film “an imposing, devastating work of shocking intelligence and even greater emotional power.”
Goldin, who said she found the title “brilliant,” again used the word to describe other decisions Poitras had made. “I would never have created a movie like this,” Goldin said. “I have a deep, deep respect for that. It’s just my movie in the sense that it’s driven by me.
“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” is the product of the collision of two “rigorous” artists, according to Gertler, while another producer, John S. Lyons, described them as “yin and yang: Laura is cool and Nan is hot,” adding, “They just merged in a really interesting way.”
“Empire of Pain” writer Patrick Radden Keefe, whose reporting on the Sacklers caught Goldin’s attention and who appears in the film, sees the finished film as a “mixture of these two different and wonderful sensibilities.” .
From Venice, the Golden Lion sits on the fireplace of Goldin’s apartment. Poitras wanted her to have it. “I’m very honored by this,” Goldin said. “She often says, ‘You know, this is our movie together.’ It’s not exactly. We both know the limits of it. And I never wanted it to be my movie rather than hers. I have total respect for her as a filmmaker.
When asked why she gave the award to Goldin, Poitras replied, “We received it the day before her birthday. And it looked like a good birthday present.
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