In All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, Laura Poitras Lets Nan Goldin Shine in All Her Glory

Laura Poitras (Citizenfour) is a documentarian who knows how to let her subjects speak. Rarely do you hear Poitras’ own voice in one of her films; she knows where to point the camera, and to allow people to bring their experience to the screen. Never is this truer of her work than in her blazing documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, which serves several functions: one as the story of artist and activist Nan Goldin and her fight with the powerful Sackler family as a response to their complicity in the opioid crisis around the world; and another to illuminate Nan’s incredible life, as well as her work placing people at the margins of society into a broader narrative. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is a story of people who have been failed by society – whether that be during the AIDS crisis, or again during the opioid crisis – but also those who have lived beyond the strictures of conservatism: sex workers, queens, trans folk, drug addicts, queer people, those considered insane … the people left behind.

The documentary is split into chapters, which interlink and move between Nan’s present-day campaign to stop the Sackler family “artwashing” their pharmaceutical fortune through galleries, universities and museums and her own personal history and what made her become a photographer. Nan is frank, angry and clawing to find herself in the years that she lost to addiction to OxyContin (Purdue Pharma’s most prescribed drug after their other overprescribed drug, Valium). The Sackler fortune was made through knowingly putting pressure on doctors to prescribe drugs of dependence and using their billions to make them one of the most unassailable families in the world.

The documentary begins with an organised “die-in” (the parallels to ACT UP are deliberate) in the Met in 2018. Nan and her group, P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), shout, “Sackler lied – people died,” while they throw self-branded OxyContin and Valium bottles into the foyer of the museum’s Sackler Wing. Similar protests are shown in the documentary, in which P.A.I.N. make a blizzard of prescriptions fall from the tiers of the Guggenheim, as well as protesting outside the Louvre, the V&A and a host of other institutions that have accepted Sackler money. As much as the documentary unmasks the vast corruption of the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma (which the Sacklers owned until sneakily filing for bankruptcy and making a self-serving settlement with victims of the opioid crisis), it also brings to life the real threats made against Nan and fellow P.A.I.N. activists including Megan Kapler and the journalist Patrick Radden Keefe. Nan and her fellow activists are not just working in the public eye to expose the Sacklers; they are also on the ground initiating harm-reduction facilities for addicts of all kinds.

As much as the documentary is about this David and Goliath conflict against the Sacklers, it is also about Nan’s life. Nancy Goldin was born in 1953, the youngest daughter of a repressed middle-class suburban Jewish family. Her older sister, Barbara, whose tragically short life was the impetus for Nan breaking free of her stifling environment, died by suicide at eighteen after being sent to orphanages and mental hospitals from the age of fifteen. From an even younger age, Nan was sent away to foster homes by her parents. She ran away from all of them and eventually ended up at the Satya Community School, where she met her long-time friend and fellow artist David Armstrong. Given a camera, Nan began taking photographs of everything – something she needed to do to prove things were actually happening (her parents had spent so long telling her that Barbara was crazy and that events that occurred had not that Nan became obsessed with ensuring her memories were palpably recorded). David and Nan “liberated” each other: his sexuality as a gay man was “discovered” by Nan; and, in turn, David christened her Nan – “Nancy” was gone.

Nan lived a particularly peripatetic life which took her to Provincetown with David and her first interactions with John Waters and his Dreamlanders, an interaction that would in turn lead to her deep friendship with Cookie Mueller and Sharon Niesp. All the while, Nan was taking photographs of people including her lovers (male and female), and she went to art school while living in Boston. Eventually, she would move to the Bowery in NYC, where she would become an integral part of the post-Stonewall queer art movement that included Greer Lankton, the filmmaker Vivienne Dick and numerous others. During this period, she recorded all her friends and their activities with her camera. She began collecting work for her installation slideshow The Ballad of Sexual Dependency – based on a Bertolt Brecht song – which included photographs of herself, her family (much to their disgust), her friends and people she noticed while working in the sex industry and at the famous Tin Pan Alley bar. It was Nan’s intention to always allow her subjects some form of autonomy over their images. If they asked her to remove them, she did (with the exception of her parents).

Photography became a way for Nan to “walk through fear”, and documenting the events that happened to herself and others made those events indelible. Some have compared her to a modern-day Diane Arbus, who was famed for taking photographs of outsiders and asking the viewer for empathy when seeing the images. Nan wanted more than empathy, however; she wanted to exalt beauty, and she wanted her queens to see how wonderful they were. She also wanted the photograph to act as a political tool of liberation, one that she used to free herself from a particularly violent relationship when she took photographs of the aftermath of a brutal domestic attack.

Nan’s life was never easy. She doesn’t pretend it was. She doesn’t shy away from topics like illegal drug use, “working as a whore” or the terrible loss of a generation of artists to AIDS. Some of the most effective scenes in the documentary revolve around trying to get a Tribeca gallery show off the ground featuring the work of artists living with, and dying from, AIDS. After the NEA pull their funding, a furious David Wojnarowicz – himself near death – attacks the church, the Reagan government and the mainstream media for ignoring the plight of so many. When it comes the time to bury his mentor and ex-lover, photographer Peter Hujar, he asks, “Should we become a generation of professional pallbearers?”

Nan’s relationship to Cookie Mueller is also significant in the film. Cookie was not only an actor but also a respected film critic (she helped Jean-Michel Basquiat become noticed) as well as an accomplished writer and spoken-word performer. When she and her husband Vittorio Scarpati were diagnosed with AIDS, Nan worked tirelessly to bring Vittorio’s hospital sketches to the AIDS exhibition. Nan and Peter Hujar also illustrated Cookie’s fictional works, and Nan dedicated a series of her own pieces to Cookie, Vittorio and Sharon, illustrating Cookie’s life with the man and woman she loved and depicting the strength of the community that rallied around her as she was dying from AIDS-related illness (passing away just a few months after Vittorio).

Nan’s own addiction issues are not glossed over. She threw herself into the Bowery lifestyle, and became addicted to hard drugs. She went through rehab only to find out that her community was dead or dying. Later, she became addicted to OxyContin; this time, her addiction was because medical professionals had told her to take the drug to relieve pain, and using Purdue Pharma’s model had her taking more and more painkillers until she could no longer be prescribed them. Her life then descended into scoring black-market pills that were often laced with fentanyl. This almost killed her. The stigma around prescription painkiller addiction is so pervasive that it is more difficult to get the safe alternative drug Buprenorphine prescribed than it is an opioid.

“The wrong things are kept secret,” Nan says as she takes us through an explicit and unflinching journey of her life. Nan’s bracingly honest photographs are now collectors’ pieces and exhibited in major institutions around the world (most of which, due to P.A.I.N.’s activism, have removed the Sackler name from their walls and now refuse Sackler money). If Nan’s mother had managed to speak of her sexual abuse at the hands of a family member, would she have healed enough to be able to raise her two daughters? If AIDS was not seen as a disease belonging only to “junkies, whores, and queers” who were forced to live with shame, would governments have acted more quickly to find adequate medication? If the Sackler family had put people over profit instead of pressuring doctors to prescribe OxyContin over other painkillers with fewer addictive properties, and the people who felt shame about secretly “becoming junkies” had been able to speak up, would more lives have been saved? The documentary and Nan both scream, “Yes!”

Circling Nan’s story back to her sister Barbara, the film reveals where its title comes from. Nan has obtained Barbara’s psychiatric hospital files, where, in reaction to a Rorschach blot test, the latter claims to have seen “all the beauty and the bloodshed”. Barbara was just eighteen when she lay on the tracks in the way of an oncoming train, leaving only a notebook behind.

There are few political queer artists as important as Nan Goldin, and Poitras’ documentary takes you through the life of an incendiary photographer who spoke her truth because she absolutely had to. In speaking her truth, she honoured many communities who were left out of mainstream conversations. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is an enormous undertaking by Poitras that could lose itself in the abundance of material available. Instead, it celebrates Nan’s life’s work (much of the documentary is made up of Nan’s own images) and her fight for liberty, and the fight she continues to take on for those who suffer from neglect. She talks the talk, walks the walk and never shies at people who would oppress her. Nan Goldin is a warrior, and Poitras shows her in all her glory – be it exposing her own fragility and trauma, or wearing the armour of the righteous into battle.

Director: Laura Poitros

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Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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