Sophie Monks Kaufman


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Ian Addison

Laura Poitras: ‘I hope the audience comes out with a different perspective on the world’

The documentary filmmaker reflects on her relationship with Nan Goldin and the ways in which art can serve as a vessel for activism.

Watching films all-day, every day at a film festival can mean they all blur into a carousel of images until – suddenly – one cuts through and you’re in a daze outside afterwards searching colleagues’ eyes for signs they are equally moved. So it was with All The Beauty and the Bloodshed, a portrait of the artist Nan Goldin by the documentarian Laura Poitras, which did move my colleagues, yes, and also Julianne Moore’s jury which awarded it the 2022 Venice Film Festival’s top prize, the Golden Lion.

Poitras is no slouch when it comes to securing industry plaudits for her work, as she has under her belt an Academy Award for Best Documentary for 2015’s investigative nerve-jangler, Citizenfour. It’s a film about America’s most wanted whistleblower, Edward Snowden, which combines the tension of a fictional spy thriller with an intimacy born of the Hong Kong hotel room setting where she, Snowden, and the journalist, Glenn Greenwald, worked to get his story out while under siege from US intelligence agencies. Poitras had been put on a terrorist watchlist after her 2005 film My Country, My Country about the first Iraqi elections under US occupation, and embedding with Snowden only intensified the surveillance that is now part of her life.

To be an enemy of the state can mark one as a friend to artists. At a breakfast arranged by the German artist, Hito Steyerl, Poitras met Goldin and the latter told the former about the work of PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now). After a near-death experience, Goldin founded this advocacy group to respond to the opioid crisis, specifically targeting the Sackler family for manufacturing and distributing the highly addictive and potentially-fatal painkiller, OxyContin. PAIN had been filming their direct actions in galleries that bore the Sackler family name with the aim of stripping away attempts at whitewashing their questionable legacy.

The two women joined forces for a towering piece of work whose emotional power sneaks up amid compelling vignettes from Goldin’s life, photography, and activism. Poitras talked to us about the difference between collaborators (like Goldin) and adversaries (like the Sacklers) shame, art, politics, the late artist and activist David Wojnarowicz, the relationship between the AIDS and the opioid crises, and how they landed on that title.

LWlies: The film contains so much material from the past and from the present. You’ve got the biographical element, the activism element, the opioid crisis, the AIDS crisis, and you’ve got these incredibly joyful times. You’re talking about the grotesquery of America, but there’s the warmth from queer community bonds. So how did you approach bringing that material together within a narrative? 

Poitras: It needed to have a lot of joy and lifeforce and beauty. It was always going to have a lot of darkness. We had amazing collaborators in the edit. Joe Bini, who works with Lynne Ramsay, is also a director and amazing storyteller. He had a vision for the inner story and the structure of the film. Then I collaborated with Amy Foot in New York, a really brilliant editor of verité observational footage. I always wanted it to be a portrait of Nan that reflects the intimacy, and then the political impact of her work. And that it wouldn’t choose one or the other.

Nan talks about wanting the people in her photographs to be proud of what they see. Do you have a similar impulse?

I love that Nan documents people that she knows and cares about. I do share that. With this film, it was really important to tell her story with a profound sense of responsibility and care. Hopefully we did that, and it’s very much a collaboration with Nan. I mean, it’s a film that Nan started and, as you know, Nan’s been beautifully telling her stories throughout her life. I felt this enormous sense of responsibility and inadequacy.  I was incredibly anxious to not fuck it up. I love when she describes that she would show people photographs, and if they didn’t like something that they could tear it up. That kind of non-attachment, but also Nan has devoted her life to her art. She cares, but also wants the people that she photographs to be proud.

What is the difference between seeing the person you’re documenting as a collaborator versus seeing them as a subject?

It’s case by case. I don’t really use the language of ‘subject’ in general.

What language do you use?

Protagonist. Or something like that with a lot of agency. I’m very transparent about the work that I’m doing. Hopefully, it’s always my vision as a filmmaker, and I’m responsible for all the shortcomings and all the decisions, but I want something truthful to be there. If I was making a film about a government official, I wouldn’t feel the need to be collaborative with them. If the subject is somebody who’s abusing power, it’s much more adversarial.

But in this film, which has so much personal detail about Nan’s life, it had to be a collaboration. She had to have a process of being able to review things and do more interviews if we didn’t get enough depth so it didn’t tell the whole truth. We worked on it, we showed her the rough cut, and then there were sections where she wanted to do more interviews. So, for instance, when she describes Brian, the man who beat her, it was important that it also had a love story component to it. Because it didn’t just happen that she was with him and then he was violent. There was love and that makes it more complicated, right, when it’s framed as a tension between autonomy and independence, rather than just an act of violence that comes out of nowhere. Only Nan can bring that truth to the story. But if the Sacklers asked me to take their images out of the picture, I would say, ‘no’. I mean I would say, ‘Fuck you’.

Have the Sacklers seen the film?

I can only assume their lawyers have. I can’t imagine that one of the seats in Venice didn’t hold somebody who works for the Sacklers. The film succeeds in being influenced by Nan’s values because her work is so intimate, and the film ends up being so intimate as well. I’m thinking of hearing the 911 call made by the family whose son died from taking OxyContin.

What is happening for you when you bear witness with your camera to such moments?

There are really complicated sets of questions and ethics around what to represent and how to represent it, and what is the purpose of representing. I’m certainly not somebody who wants to gratuitously show any kind of violence. We all had to feel that featuring the moment you referenced was not going to cause harm. We did speak to the family who played the 911 call; we spoke to the parents who lost their child. So, in the film, when they confront the Sacklers, different families say what happened, and they started theirs with the 911 call. She (the mother) chose to do that and then she put it on the internet after. The family wants people to hear this, like, they want people to understand the suffering that people have been through. They want the criminality of the Sackler family to be exposed. They feel it’s a way to honour their son who died from taking OxyContin.

And there’s always the question of ‘how do you reach people emotionally?’ I don’t know if there’s any words you could write that would have the same impact as that 911 call which is basically a mother screaming. We felt, I felt, and the film team felt that it communicated so much about the tragedy of this epidemic, and this overdose crisis through this mother’s act of sharing this that we felt it was really important, even though painful. My hope was always that the audience for the film doesn’t feel like it’s entertainment, but actually comes out with a different perspective on the world. And maybe that different perspective can lead to some kind of change.

That also connects with the line in the film, “The wrong things are kept private, and it destroys people.” What is it about disclosing something that makes it less harmful?

I think that Nan feels really strongly that one of the themes that recurs in her work is destigmatisation. If she shares her experience with addiction or being battered… First of all, it’s painful for her, it doesn’t come easy. It’s excruciating, actually. I’ve seen it as she makes her own work. It’s not like there’s any joy in that process, but I think she feels strongly that it helps others to find their place in the world. People say that about Nan’s work all the time. Young queer people see her photographs, and they go, ‘Oh, my God, there’s a world for me.’ It connects with people.

She talks about her addiction or medication-assisted treatment and buprenorphine – that’s really brave and maybe other people who are struggling feel that they’re not alone. A lot of the struggle is around shame and stigma that’s misplaced, right? Like, the shame and stigma belongs on the billionaire profiteers. Let’s make them really, really uncomfortable. For people who are suffering, how can this film or the work that PAIN does around harm-reduction help to keep people alive? Something that Nan has done throughout her life is to face things with full truth, even if it’s painful – and that’s a good thing.

Do you feel art and politics can be the same thing?

I don’t think they’re the same thing, personally. I don’t speak for Nan. I make films to make films. Yes, I have a lot of beliefs in terms of political perspectives but that’s not an alternative to activism. I also protest on the street and there are other types of things you can do as an activist. I do think that no artist works in a political vacuum and sometimes the work can – and should – spill over like with [the currently-incarcerated Iranian filmmaker] Jafar Panahi or David Wojnarowicz. He’s one of the most extraordinary artists, and his writing is so brilliant. Yes, it’s also rage about the society that he lives in. But the writing is great not because of his rage, just because the writing is great.

What is that balance between a clear-cut communication project, where you want to make it explicitly clear what your protagonists’ motives are, but as a lover of cinema, and you want to make something as an artist in your own right? How do those elements balance out?

During dialogue, oftentimes when I start a film, I have certain ideas about what I’m interested in, and what I hope to do with it, but then those ideas meet reality, they meet people, and then you have to change because it’s not my job to impose a worldview on the films, but to be receptive to what is happening in front of me. For instance, going back to Citizenfour, we were in email contact for six months before I met Edward Snowden in Hong Kong. He never told me anything about his biography, so I could only imagine in my head who was I going to meet. The person was telling me what they knew, so I was like, ‘Okay, if somebody knows this level of detail about what the NSA is doing, and its misdeeds, this has to be a senior level person.’

I sort of said, Okay, I’m going to meet somebody who’s not 29! When Glenn (Greenwald), and I had this rendez-vous point, and he came up, and it was in a T-shirt and jeans. I just thought, ‘Oh this is not good news. They’re gonna kill us all. This is not going to end well.’ Because I mistakenly didn’t see the fact that, because of his courage and his youth, he’s risking more, right? I had already been targeted. The US government had already put me on a terrorist watch list. So I just felt like the CIA is definitely going to haul us in, but I realised once I stepped back, the fact that somebody so young was risking so much, probably reached young people in a way that had maybe had more impact.

When you’re in the eye of the storm and so embedded in a situation that is totally unpredictable, such as being in that hotel room in Hong Kong, how much is all the stuff that the film later explains is happening in your head at the time?

Particularly in that situation, I’ve never been under stress like that. My heart was beating out of my chest. I was just waiting for the CIA to knock the door down and arrest us all. I do think I disassociated at some point. It was lucky that I’d made enough films that I could try to be there and try to capture what was happening because the potential consequences were so terrifying. Edward was so calm, and he was almost trying to calm us down. In retrospect, I think, mentally he had resigned himself to any potential outcome. So he was on the other side. He was in some sort of ‘prepared for anything’ state.

I wanted to read this David Wojnarowicz line, just because it makes every hair on my body stand up. “I wake up every day in this killing machine called America, and I’m carrying this rage, like a blood-filled egg.” How has the USA changed since he wrote that in the ’80s?

Unfortunately, the US has not changed. It was so important to bring up what happened with AIDS and put it in juxtaposition with the overdose crisis because they’re both examples of the utter failure of society to hold people accountable and to provide basic needs. David Wojnarowicz was talking about not having adequate health care during the AIDS crisis. We’re still a country that doesn’t have healthcare for citizens. How can a wealthy country not meet these basic needs of citizens? How is it that a billionaire family can get away with unspeakable crimes and never be held accountable?

Unfortunately, it’s an all-too-American story – the impunity and failure of the government, and this whole gross philanthropy where you give your money and you get a tax write-off and your name is put on walls and museums, and nobody questions where that money comes from. Hopefully, that’s over. One thing that Nan should feel really proud of is that every board member of every museum in the US is nervous that they’re going to be next. That’s good shame. That’s where the shame belongs.

The title for the film, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, is revealed as a phrase within Nan Goldin’s sister’s psychiatric records. When you happened across it, did you know it would be the title?

I did. It hits. We were looking for a title – I always felt like, ‘It will come’. We were deep into the editing and then Nan shared Barbara’s records. I read it and [sighs] woah. The full quote is her responding to a Rorschach test and it’s longer. “She sees the future and all the beauty and the bloodshed.” I went to Nan. She felt immediately that it was the right title. It came from her sister. It’s from the source material and embodies the fact that the film is a celebration of people who resist accepting the status quo.

Nan is always saying, “We weren’t necessarily political, we just didn’t give a shit what society thought we should be doing.” Hopefully it’s a celebration of that. Hopefully it tells the audience that it’s not a biopic – I’m not a fan of biopics – and that it’s bigger. It’s about Nan and about the Sacklers but it’s hopefully also about the need to communicate, about finding your voice, about cruel societies but also about change and what people can do when they join forces. It’s also about impunity and tragedy – there’s so much tragedy in the film.

Published 27 Jan 2023

Tags: All the Beauty and the Bloodshed Laura Poitras Nan Goldin

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