Unique portrait of Nan Goldin as an artist and activist

All the beauty and the bloodshedthe documentary, which unexpectedly won the Golden Lion at the last Venice Film Festival, initially feels like two separate films.

There is the account of Nan Goldin’s activist struggle (1953) with the PAIN organization she founded against the Sackler family, the pharmaceutical companies behind the sedative Valium and later the painkiller OxyContin. It was a thorn in the side of the successful photographer that art institutions worldwide hailed the Sacklers as patrons, while these pharmaceutical companies addicted millions of Americans, including herself, to drugs. According to Patrick Radden Keefe, journalist for e.g The New YorkersAlmost half a million people have died so far from the opiate crisis in the United States.

Goldin’s struggle against the powerful Sacklers is a subject one would expect from political filmmaker Laura Poitras. But between PAIN’s activist actions, she cuts a kind of ‘second film’, where the artist looks back on his life and career in a very personal and comprehensive way. In Poitras’ Oscar-winning account of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations (Citizen four2014) that kind of personal information was actually avoided.

In a raspy voice, we hear Goldin recount how she began photography during her oppressive, traumatic childhood – her rebellious sister, put away in an institution by her conformist parents, committed suicide. After being kicked out as a teenager, Goldin established himself in the mid-1970s and 1980s with his raw, seemingly candid snapshots of himself and his friends.

The subcultures full of misfits where the photographer felt at home shamelessly surrendered to her gaze. It produced now world-famous, but in an era of ‘black and white landscape photography’, as Goldin himself describes it, ground-breaking images. Intimate and confrontational, she portrayed queer scenes, parties bathed in junky chic, sex, drug use, but also domestic violence.

Slowly the two lines start in All the beauty and the bloodshed in this way it becomes more and more clear to form a whole, and you understand Poitras’s approach better and better. Because time and time again it becomes clear how with Goldin not only her work and the personal always intertwine, but also art and activism. Images of her own face, beaten black and blue by an ex-partner, are not only a reminder to stay away from him, but also a statement about, among other things, the dependence between men and women.

Her work on the devastation AIDS wreaked among her New York acquaintances was personal—in Goldin’s photographs we see her good friend, the actress Cookie Mueller, party euphorically, get married, and die of AIDS at age 40. But the same images were also extremely political, Goldin broke the silence surrounding the AIDS epidemic through his work.

Goldin’s activist fight against the Sacklers is interspersed with theatrical performances. For example, the documentary opens with a bitter but aesthetic act in which she and PAIN members transform the elegant ponds of the Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum in New York into mournful puddles full of orange OxyContin tubes.

The result is that All the beauty and the bloodshed not only shows how activism can really make a difference, throughout the film we see one art temple after another remove the name of the Sacklers from their halls. Or a unique portrait of an artist who was at the heart of social upheavals and crises and captured them in his own way. But the film also makes it clear that art born of necessity and the urge for change can set something in motion.

All the beauty and the bloodshed is itself more of an activist work of art than a film striving for completeness. If you’re looking for more background information on the US opiate crisis, or if you expect to hear back and forth on this topic, you should look elsewhere. You are also constantly aware that what Goldin says about his past is subjective and selective. In the opening moments, she already states that it is “easy to make stories about your life”. But acknowledging this does not detract from the powerful message of Goldin’s work and this film.

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