Laura Poitras’ fierce and sprawling documentary about the life, work, and activism of artist Nan Goldin is one of devastating power
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, Laura Poitras’ earth-shattering documentary on photographer and activist Nan Goldin, is simultaneously so massive and intricate that it humbles any attempt to disassemble it onto paper. Told in multiple strands that together strike an immensely powerful chord, it narrates the story of Goldin’s youth, the traumatic loss of her sister Barbara to suicide, her artistic evolution in the queer havens of 70s-80s America, and her ongoing activist work with P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), the organisation she founded in her fight against the Sackler family. The infamous philanthropists made billions from the opioid epidemic, which continues to claim the lives of over 100 Americans daily. Their name still adorns the walls of museums and universities around the world.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed finds the fight where death and capitalism echo in the laureled halls of our revered cultural institutions. But this is equally Poitras’ and Goldin’s film, and it carries histories both personal and national, intimate and collective, weaving them together with the knowledge that there is not one without the other. The result is an impossibly rich and vast tapestry of art, love, pain, community, and struggle – one so overflowing with emotion that it at times feels like the screen might crack open under its weight. Tracing the American path from the AIDS crisis to the opioid epidemic, and Goldin’s grief-stricken process of coming to terms with why she lost her sister, it asks us again and again: which bodies matter? Whose are deemed visible? Whose are left to die?
Narratively opulent and intertextual, the film leafs between past and present chapters of Goldin’s life, unearthing resonances that would have been otherwise lost in a temporally linear approach. Investigative montages on P.A.I.N.’s work are punctuated with Goldin’s photographs commemorating the pleasures and chaos of her self-discovery in the queer scenes of 1980s New York: feather boas, lipstick, sex, smoke, violence, intimacy, humanity. The cinematic quality of Goldin’s photographs is already astonishing to witness like this, embedded in a film so raw and personal, but her voiceovers render them heart-stopping. “I wanted them to feel proud of being part of the work,” she says of the radiant drag queens, lovers, friends, and artists she photographed; warmth softens her husky voice. The adoration Goldin has for her subjects is matched only in fierceness by the rage of her activism – and those alongside her – against the Sackler family, and the drug crisis that almost claimed her life.
Mere days before All The Beauty and the Bloodshed’s UK premiere at the 2022 BFI London Film Festival, the V&A had just announced it was dropping the Sackler name. It is dizzying to see the museum as it was in Poitras’ film, one institution amongst many where Goldin and other P.A.I.N. members demanded the Sacklers be scrubbed from the walls. Staging die-ins in protest, they lay on the ground surrounded by orange prescription bottles, covered in banners that mourn the thousands of lives lost to the opioid epidemic. Their tremulous rage splashes red against the illustrious facades of the V&A, the Guggenheim, the Tate. It demands visibility, and leaves us to contemplate the mountain of bodies that prop up all the big buildings in this death-driven world.
In times of overlapping existential crisis, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed’s deliberation on the politics and art of mourning, on channeling grief into urgency, and the violent rivers of history that bleed into the present, feels all too necessary to witness. Its power is devastating. Fierce, sprawling, and impossible to summate, it is true to life itself. All of it: all of the beauty, all of the bloodshed.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2021. It will be released in UK cinemas on 27 January 2023.Where to watch