Academy Award winner Laura Poitras has become one of the keenest and most perceptive chroniclers of our times. From torture in Iraq to Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks, her documentaries feel like they aren’t just recording history as it is made but are directly participating in it. They share history’s hotel rooms and ride pillion with it as it weaves through the streets. This promotes a certain intimacy, or even camaraderie.
Poitras’ films are activism in the best sense: they gladly relinquish any detachment or objectivity in the face of injustice and deceit, while nevertheless keeping a cool head. This is partly because she is more interested in the participants than she is in any abstract ideology. Julian Assange, with all his cooked-in contradictions, fascinates her as does the geeky, pre-fame Snowden. In All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, Poitras turns her camera on Nan Goldin, a photographer and celebrated contemporary artist who has turned her prodigious energies to a fight against the Sackler family.
The Sacklers are the family who owned Purdue, a drugs company which promoted and marketed Oxycontin on the mass market and, in doing so, exacerbated the opioid crisis which has cost over half a million American lives. At the beginning of the film, we see Goldin and her Oxycontin survivors group PAIN about to carry out a die-in at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Right away we get a close-up of the excitement, the jitters, the uncertainty of when to start. All political activism that challenges authority risks feeling silly, inappropriate, rude. If we were to storm the Bastille today, we’d be lucky to get into the lobby. But the demonstration begins, with the aim of shaming the museums and art galleries who have taken Sackler money and have the Sackler name over their wings and education departments.
The inspiration for Goldin starts with her elder sister and her own dark family history of neglect and suicide. The Sacklers fade for a moment into the background: this film isn’t about their greed or venality – who cares about their motivation? Rather, Poitras is much more interested in what makes Goldin tick. A life lived on the edge and then over it emerges; a life of parental neglect and debilitating shyness which is saved by the camera and the language it gives her. For her – and by extension for Poitras – the camera is a form of investigation, of revelation, of making visible.
Goldin’s first success came with a series of slideshows which portrayed her friends from the gay community: the countercultural figures, the sex workers and late night denizens. This takes on an immediacy when she also chronicles the physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her boyfriend and later the scandalous preventable tragedy of the HIV/AIDS crisis. The Sacklers are just the latest manifestation of an establishment which is happy to crush anything in its way as it accumulates more wealth and power than it will ever be able to spend or exercise. In fact, as their campaign progresses, the museums and galleries begin to get nervous as the questions might extend to other benefactors and their revenue streams. Goldin isn’t simply biting the hand that feeds her, she is gnawing it off.
Goldin’s career and Poitras’ latest asserts the primacy of the artist as a participant in the world. Something which will make us see the world differently starting from the very walls from which the art might hang: the rooms in which the films are seen. When the Sackler family finally appear, they are silent onlookers forced – by court order – to watch and witness the testimonies of the thousands of people who have had their lives destroyed or lost loved ones to addiction which they profited directly from. But we are watching too. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed quietly, persistently demands some answers from us in turn.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty