'All the Beauty and the Bloodshed' - Review

Laura Poitras' thought-provoking documentary on artist and activist Nan Goldin's fight against Big Pharma and the Sackler family's "art-washing" won the top prize in Venice, is Oscar-bound and will be in cinemas across the UK & Ireland from January 27th, 2023.
'All the Beauty and the Bloodshed' - Review

To any self respecting art lover who has visited art galleries and museums around the world, the name Nan Goldin is instantly recognizable. The American photographer depicted the savagely colorful NYC of the early Eighties, and beyond, and through her haunting images, described not only a decade and a place, but the tragic humanity of the AIDS crisis and what diversity, true diversity really means.

But what few may have known was that behind this iconic artist, there also stood a self made activist, a woman who, through her own hair raising experience with addiction, wanted to make the world a safer and better place for those we often see as marginalized. In the U.S. we call them "junkies", which is unfair as addiction is nothing that can be described in one throwaway word. Substance abuse comes from a lifetime of pain and suffering, a whole journey that often begins in one violent instant and continues down a slope of loss and anguish.

At the end of that freefall, ready to snatch into their web the unsuspecting victims of that cruel voyage, are the nets of the hugely lucrative American industry of Big Pharma, a conglomerate of scruples-lacking, super rich, conscience-free individuals who run highly profitable pharmaceutical companies which make all kinds of drugs to ease pain, suffering and depression. And among them, Purdue Pharma owned by the Sackler family, is the biggest, with Purdue being the "company that not only manufactures the highly addictive painkiller OxyContin but has pled guilty to criminal charges related to its marketing of the drug," as the All the Beauty and the Bloodshed press kit perfectly indicates.

Yet the Sackler name is another one familiar to most of the art viewing public out there. Like a subliminal message, a dangerous mantra to sanitize and re-market their family's brand, the Sacklers have gone around the world buying "billboards" inside international art institutions, in the form of a Sackler wing here and there -- a room funded by money donated by them -- and the likes. Thus "art-washing" their name and reputation as well as their responsibility in the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

Goldin has become their fiercest critic and while the company Purdue declared bankruptcy to avoid paying the $600 millions plus they owed their victims, the Sackler family held on to their wealth, as well as their art world reputation, mostly due to these donations.

Filmmaker Laura Poitras photographed by © Jan Stürmann

Now, add into this powerful mix another icon, Oscar-winning filmmaker Laura Poitras, who has been documenting the imperative stories of our times, including those of Edward Snowden (in the 2014 film Citizenfour which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary) and Julian Assange (in the 2016 film Risk). And you've got an absolute gem of a documentary, so powerful and watchable at once that it paralyzes you into your seat and keeps you spellbound through its 120 minutes -- with all its beauty as well as its bloodshed.

As Goldin shares in the film, “The wrong things are kept private in society, and that destroys people,” and the extraordinary photographer has made this her lifelong mantra. In her art, as well as her life, nothing is secret, nothing is really so private that it denies inspiration and help to others who may need it. The group P.A.I.N., which Goldin founded to shame museums into rejecting Sackler money, stands for "Prescription Addiction Intervention Now." Inspired by Act Up (the group founded in the late 80's to work towards ending the AIDS pandemic), P.A.I.N. members have been orchestrating protests to call attention to the toxic philanthropy of the Sackler family.

Goldin herself admits to having done recreational drugs during the 80's and 90's as that was the culture of NYC amidst the pain and beauty of those days, when the AIDS epidemic first exploded. The City was vibrant, the colors of Goldin's neo realistic photos punch the viewer in the face, a stark contrast to the all-black and denim hues of modern day New York, where Goldin and her friends still live. In her own curated collections titled “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” or “Sisters, Saints and Sibyls” or her legendary 1989, NEA-censored AIDS exhibition,“Witness: Against Our Vanishing” Goldin doesn't hold punches -- showing us what the title of the documentary means.

Nan Goldin photographed by © Russel Hart, courtesy of Nan Goldin

But Goldin herself became addicted to opioids when she was given OxyContin following a brutal beating by her then-boyfriend in Berlin, who left her with a shattered eye socket, bruised and battered. When she discovered the perils of this painkiller which doctors prescribed as an antidote to suffering to be taken every four hours, before any of the symptoms could be felt again, she became an activist for not only life saving, overdose-reversing emergency kits containing naloxone, but also lifelong medication to help overcome the addiction itself -- as Oxycontin dependency is neverending. In one of the most poignant moments, of an otherwise bewitching film that can be (and should be) watched again and again, Goldin testifies for a House Oversight Committee hearing admitting that addiction is not a short road, rather a long path that needs additional drugs to be managed.

In the film's press kit, Goldin explains why she and P.A.I.N. have zeroed in on the Sacklers, as they aren't the only Big Pharma family out there. “I focused on the Sacklers because it was a name I knew. I thought it was the name of these very generous philanthropists who supported the art that I loved,” Goldin explains. “And then I found out how dirty their money is. I found out that they're the ones who produced and marketed the drug that I myself was addicted to.”

Along with all the other wondrously complex issues that Poitras deals with in the film, there is also a terrifying sidebar commentary on Goldin's family dynamics, which explain her work and her sensibilities best -- and also give the documentary its title. The artist's older sister Barbara Holly Goldin committed suicide at a very young age and in her mental health assessment appeared the phrase “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” taken from the written record following Goldin’s late sister's responses to a Rorschach test. A scene later in the film featuring their mom and dad dancing in their living room is worthy of a Hitchcock thriller.

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed will be in cinemas across the UK & Ireland on January 27th 2023, distributed by Altitude Film.

USA, 122 minutes, 2022

Dir: Laura Poitras

Prod: Laura Poitras, Nan Goldin, Howard Gertler, John Lyons, Yoni Golijov

Co-prod: Megan Kapler

Exec prod: Alex Kwartler, Clare Carter

Cinematography: Nan Goldin

Editor: Amy Foote, Joe Bini, Brian A. Kates, A.C.E


Featuring Nan Goldin, Megan Kapler, Patrick Radden Keefe, David Wojnarowicz, David Armstrong, Cookie Mueller, Vittorio Scarpati, Maggie Smith

Sales: Altitude Film

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