Year:  2022

Director:  Laura Poitras

Rated:  R

Release:  March 9, 2023

Distributor: Madman

Running time: 122 minutes

Worth: $19.00
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Nan Goldin

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.

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 allow people to bring their experience to the screen. Never is this truer 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, and also illuminates Nan’s incredible life and 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 Sacker family “art washing” their pharmaceutical fortune through galleries, universities, and museums, back to Nan’s 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 Pharmaceuticals’ 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 Gallery in 2018. Nan and her group P.A.I.N. – Pharmaceutical Addiction Intervention Now – shout “Sackler lied – People died” while they throw self-branded OxyContin and Valium bottles into the foyer of the Sackler Wing.

Similar protests are shown in the documentary, where P.A.I.N. make a blizzard of prescriptions fall from the tiers of the Guggenheim, as well as protests outside The Louvre, The V&A Museum, and a host of institutions that have accepted Sackler money.

As much as the documentary unmasks the vast corruption of the Sackler family and Perdue (which they owned until they sneakily filed for bankruptcy and made 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 Smith. 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.

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, committed 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 spent so long telling her that Barbara was crazy, and that events that occurred, did not, that Nan became obsessed with ensuring her memories were palpably recorded).

David’s sexuality as a gay man was “discovered” by Nan, and in turn David christened her Nan (Nancy was gone) – they “liberated” each other.

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 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 while living in Boston went to art school. Eventually, Nan would move to the Bowery in NYC where she would become an integral part of the post-Stonewall queer art movement that included Greer Langton, the filmmaker Vivienne Dick, and numerous others.

During this period, she recorded with her camera all her friends and their activities. She began collecting work for her installation slide show The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (based on a Bertolt Brecht song), which included photographs of herself, family (much to their disgust), 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 to “walk through fear” for Nan, 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, she wanted to exalt beauty, 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 liberate 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 that featured the work of artists living with, and dying from, AIDS. When funding was pulled, a furious David Wojnarowicz (who was at that time dying) attacks the church, the Reagan government, and the mainstream media for ignoring the plight of so many. When it comes time to bury his mentor and ex-lover, the photographer Peter Hujar, he asks “Should we become a generation of professional pall bearers?”

Nan’s relationship to Cookie Mueller is also significant, Cookie was not only an actor, she was a respected film critic (she helped Basquiat become noticed) and 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 fiction, and Nan dedicated a series of works on Cookie, Vittorio, and Sharon that illustrated Cookie’s life with the man and woman she loved, and showed the strength of the community that rallied around Cookie as she was dying of AIDS (passing just a few months after Vittorio).

Nan 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 the addiction was because medical professionals had told her to take the drug to relieve pain and using Perdue Pharmaceuticals’ 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, which were often laced with fentanyl. It 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 photographs are now collector’s pieces and exhibited in major institutions around the world (most of whom have removed the Sackler name from their walls, and refuse Sackler money, due to P.A.I.N.’s activism) and are bracingly honest. 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 when pressuring doctors to prescribe OxyContin over other pain killers, which had 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, we find where the title of the film comes from. Nan obtained Barbara’s psychiatric hospital files, where in reaction to a Rorschach blot test, she saw “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 content available. Instead, it celebrates Goldin’s life’s work (much of the documentary is made up of Goldin’s own images) and her fight for liberty, and the fight she continues to take on for those who suffer from neglect. Goldin talks the talk, walks the walk, and never shies from people who would oppress her. Nan Goldin is a warrior and Poitras shows her in all her glory, be that exposing her own fragility and trauma, or wearing the armour of the righteous into battle.