The Golden Lion-winning All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is a ravishing documentary that has Laura Poitras delivering her most fascinating and emotional work.
During the initial tides of the pandemic, I was searching for things to do and films to watch and trying to take my mind off the fact that we would be in deep isolation for God knew how long. One of the people I started to read about was the American photographer and activist Nan Goldin. Her name may not be familiar to those who aren’t that interested in the world of photography, but she is indeed an important figure in it. So why did her work catch my eye? Because of how she portrayed the various NYC subcultures, specifically the LGBTQIA+ community, and how the people in them demonstrated closeness. And her most noticeable work, a 2016-2017 MoMa exhibition named “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency”, captures that. In it, she explored various relationships and how intimacy, drugs, and loss played a role in the lives of the people she photographed. The exhibition also touched upon the lawless bohemianism of the 80s, the HIV/AIDS crisis, and the opioid epidemic. When you see Goldin’s pictures, you get a sense that she knows her subjects – that there’s a deep connection between the people in front and behind the camera. With just a mere glance, you can feel the liveliness and emotions of the people in the photographs. I think that is one of the reasons why I consider Nan Goldin’s work so fascinating.
A few months back, out of the blue, it was announced that the Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, known for her work in Citizenfour (2014) and The Oath (2010), was going to use Goldin as her next subject for her latest project. The documentary is titled All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival a few days ago, and it’s now having its fall film festival run. The documentary covers over three years of Poitras and Goldin’s battle against the notorious big-pharma Sackler family. That family owned the drug company Purdue Pharma, which promoted and marketed the use of the pain medication OxyContin on the mass market. Because they promoted it extensively, plenty of people got hooked, and this later caused thousands of deaths worldwide. This is what All the Beauty and the Bloodshed primarily wants to tackle: how the opioid crisis has affected those who have taken the drug and the people who have lost someone because of it as well. There’s a central figure in the fight for the Sackler family’s accountability and justice: Nan Goldin.
We see all of these events and protests through the frame of her past and present life. Why is Goldin fighting so vigorously against them? Because she was one of those people who got addicted to the drug, her dependency on OxyContin lasted plenty of years. She could have been one of the thousands of people who died while suffering an overdose. The drug’s effects on her life left a mental scar that will never leave. So, she marches and protests against the ones who have cursed thousands of people with a prescription that would soon become a death sentence. If someone were going to make this subject matter work and feel its mighty wrath, it would be Poitras. She puts herself right in the center of the events she’s covering. While other documentarians work from afar, Poitras isn’t afraid to hold back, interacting with the situation. Instead of focusing on the ideology and doctrine behind the pharmaceutical industry and its corrupt behavior, she tells the story of the people who are fighting against the Sackler family, with Goldin as the primary vessel for revolution.
This is beneficial to Poitras’s documentary style because it causes the audience to react emotionally; it has a more significant impact because you hear the stories of the people affected by the drug. While the documentary shifts between different perspectives, Goldin’s perception is the main priority. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed also works as an ode to Nan Goldin, and her work as both a photographer and activist. Poitras’ latest is filled with purity and sensitivity, depicting this fight against the Sackler family in a way that shocks and mesmerizes more than one might anticipate. To be fascinated by Poitras’ documentary, you don’t need to know about Nan Goldin. The viewer learns about her little by little, as Poitras divides this film into chapters that recap the photographer’s entire life until her present days of the revolt against the higher-ups. You learn about the good and bad things that have happened in her life: childhood, past lovers, troubles with drugs, and artistic experiences. And all of this is through an intimate and vulnerable lens.
Still, Goldin remains confident in her words, never faltering nor breaking down even on the most personal and harrowing topics. In one part, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is a poignant exploration of Goldin as a person – the trauma, joy, and creativity that she shared through her equally beautiful and heartbreaking photos. This part of the documentary is told through the juxtaposition between archival images, her own narration, and testimonials of people who love her work or know her personally. That’s Poitras’ reliance on the past. On the other hand, Poitras’s knack for political topics is attached to Goldin’s activism and pursuit of the Sackler family’s accountability for plenty of people’s opioid addictions and deaths. Here, we see how Goldin and Poitras have teamed up to capture the protests on a cinematic and affluent level. These two separate parts are attached to one another, since Nan Goldin is also a survivor of said habit. In one of the first scenes in the film, you see Goldin rounding up the members of her OxyContin survivors’ group, P.A.I.N (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now).
They are going to protest at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Specifically, they are doing a die-in, a demonstration in which a group of people gather themselves and lie down as if they were dead, to urge the museum to cut their ties with the Sackler family. The owners of Purdue Pharma have donated billions of dollars to museums (the Met, Guggenheim, and Louvre), where they showcase some of Goldin’s work, and she doesn’t want her photos to be hung in a place supported by such a corrupt company. Poitras shoots those scenes with empathy, showcasing the tensions and anxieties of the demonstrations. The director also manifests the sadness of the lives lost, which are presented in the various forms of the protests, such as the people lying down as if they were dead bodies, the prescription notes raining down from the Met, and the empty syringes. By doing such demonstrations, Goldin could have been taken out of the world that she has been a part of her entire life. Yet, with guts of fury, she sticks to the plan, disconnecting the art world from the money delivered by people with blood on their hands.
These scenes are incredibly moving because of the humanity captured by Poitras. There’s no need to shower the screen in a highly saddened haze: they are caught at the moment. Another one of the documentary’s most fascinating aspects is its creative and kaleidoscopic liberties when showcasing the stories behind her iconic pictures and personal tragedies. Goldin narrates with a numb yet poised voice as Poitras scrolls through some of her portraits and images. Yet, by looking closely into the photographs, you can see that the people in them start disappearing once the talks about tragedy and grief arrive; the landscapes change as the tone alters from angst to despair. This creates a lens for Goldin to portray her grief and anger against the Sacklers. She feels the suffering of those who have lost someone due to those prescription drugs, as a doctor’s note that is supposed to make you feel better ended up as a death sentence. The editing team (Joe Bini, Amy Foote, Brain A. Kates) find a way to stylishly blend the exposition on the photographer’s lengthy background with her current-day passages of activism and rebellion against Sacklers.
Ultimately, this isn’t just a documentary about resilience; the key arrives from its title, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. It’s a portrait of the importance of having love, acceptance, and respect in one’s life after tragic events stagger your world. However, the title’s origin is even more heartbreaking than that. It is actually devastating, as one of the best scenes in the documentary reveals the haunting phrase that gave birth to the title of Poitras’ latest work. One begins to feel an array of emotions as it reaches its end. You feel both saddened and angered, with one hand on your heart because of the agony caused by Nan and the people’s testimonies, and the other with a closed fist due to the harsh reality that some companies are filled with evil in their hearts. It’s truly the work of a master at the helm: this is Poitras’ forte – the beguiling aftermath of having finished one of her documentaries. Yet, this time around, it’s even more vital than ever before.
The connection between Nan Goldin and the opioid crisis may be complicated, and there’s a lot to unpack, but Poitras does an extraordinary job of displaying all these intertwining issues. What begins as a political documentary ends as a work for Goldin to mend her heart and reflect on the past. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is an extraordinary piece of work by Poitras, who may have made not only her best work to date with the film, but also her most fascinating, emotional, and touching one.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed premiered at TIFF on September 12, 2022, and opened in New York on November 23, in LA on December 2 and in additional US markets on December 9. In the UK, the film was released in UK cinemas on January 27, 2023.