With All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, the Oscar-winning documentary maker was keen to make a non-biopic film about the unfiltered artist.
Nan Goldin never held back from sharing her life; it is her artistic signature. The photographer’s 1986 slideshow The Ballad of Sexual Dependency heralded her rise in the downtown New York art world by exposing drugs, sex and abuse in her own life and that of her friends.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed began when Goldin was looking for a producer for a documentary she was making. As a recovering OxyContin addict, Goldin founded the advocacy group Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN) and wanted to complete a film about her art museum protests against Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family. With protests at the Met, Guggenheim, Louvre and other arts institutions, PAIN demanded that museums stop accepting fundraising and remove their names from their walls.
Goldin wanted Poitras to tell the story of PAIN – but Poitras wanted to tell the story of Goldin.
“She has completely rejected the status quo in normative society,” Poitras said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “And all her life. No interest. It’s not even like a political gesture. It’s like, “Fuck it.” She and her friends are pioneers who are basically just saying, “This society, we don’t accept the rules of the game.” It’s been throughout her work.”
For her films, Poitras has long been drawn to socially critical outsiders, including Edward Snowden (Oscar winner “Citizenfour”) and Julian Assange (“Risk”). Goldin doesn’t feel ashamed whether she’s talking about bad friends, illegal drugs, or sex work. “All her life she has been forced to respond to the world she lives in,” Poitras said. “She’s someone who, as an artist, is motivated by what she has to say without always thinking about it too much.”
Poitras said she began documenting Goldin’s contemporary activism, but soon became keen to speak more about the rest of Goldin’s life. “There was a shift,” Poitras said. “With every film you learn more and then, ‘Oh, we have other things to talk about.’ “
Photo courtesy of Nan Goldin.
It was at this point that Poitras, with the help of the late Participant manager Diane Weyermann, struck a deal with Goldin to conduct a series of audio interviews at her home. “I knew it would give me a kind of intimacy that wouldn’t be there if there was a camera and a crew,” Poitras said. “It was just an instinct.”
In her first interview, which Poitras describes as “really emotionally intense,” the artist spoke of being sent to foster care. “I was so moved by how she spoke about her life,” Poitras said. “It was very raw and very unfiltered.”
The filmmakers created a safety net. “Nan and I were really free to talk,” said Poitras. “And she would have an opportunity later, before sharing with anyone more broadly, to see if anything went too far.” And when we had a cut, nobody saw anything before we even showed Diane until Nan had a chance to hear it. There wasn’t really anything she asked us to remove from the film.”
Actually, Goldin just wanted to reveal more. In one instance, Poitras spoke to Goldin about the photos of her being spanked by then-boyfriend Brian. “I wasn’t asking about their relationship or the love story,” Poitras said. “And then when we shared the first cut, she said, ‘We need to talk more and get back to this story. Because it wasn’t truthful not to talk about it, too. “Their collaboration made the film deeper.”
Courtesy of Neon
Goldin has previously explored some of these intimate moments in her own work, but this was different. “She drives to share her own stories that are destigmatized,” Poitras said. “Especially sex work, that was something that was important to talk about because of the stigma, not because she wanted to reveal it. There’s a kind of emotional bravery I’ve never experienced. And not someone who is just emotionally brave in their intimate relationships, but emotionally brave when sharing it with the public. That’s pretty rare.” (The film’s ending is a shocker that Poitras would rather reveal on his own terms.)
But with all those personal details, “I didn’t want to do a biopic,” Poitras said. “I’m not a biographer. I wanted to make juxtapositions and historical connections and come up with an artist portrait. I definitely wanted to avoid any kind of narrative that this artist was killed by his demons: I’m not interested in that story.”
The story Poitras tells is how Goldin’s life and work intersect with her activism. The editorial team, led by Joe Bini (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”), found a way to piece together the complex layers.
“Joe Bini had these ideas about the intertwining of past and present and an inner and outer world,” Poitras said. “It was very [challenging] to keep the drama and the subtlety and the subtext and that storyline going. And to put the blame where it belongs: the Sackler family and a society that doesn’t hold people accountable or don’t provide health care to its citizens. I was wary of certain pitfalls of genre and wanted to do something that was much more social criticism and at the same time portrait. I hope it does both.”
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed reveals the unexpected success of Goldin’s anti-Sackler museum campaign, but doesn’t replace the pain and suffering. This is captured in an extraordinary scene in which Poitras films Goldin taking part in a court-ordered zoom that has forced the Sackler family to witness first-hand stories of the suffering they have caused. The camera moves steadily towards Theresa Sackler, who listens to a mother playing an emergency call for her while her only child is dying. “You shed no tears,” said Poitras.
In addition to winning the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed received major nominations at the CCA Documentary Awards, Cinema Eye Honors, and IDA Awards, as well as a spot on the Predictive DOC NYC shortlist. It’s intense – and a key player in this year’s awards throng.
Neon opens the film in New York theaters on Wednesday, November 23; LA Theater on Friday, December 2nd; and Broad Theaters on Friday, December 9th.