By Inès de Boudemange, Third Year, Geography
Laura Poitras' new directorial effort, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (2022), is a documentary which offers a fragmented narrative of P.A.I.N's struggle against the Sackler family-owned Purdue Pharma pharmaceutical industry, which is responsible for the opioid crisis in the US.
While Poitras routinely makes harrowing documentaries that cut a stark image of the ‘backstage’ world, audiences may never get used to their electroshock effect. In All the Beauty and the Bloodshed the director tackles the acute issue of pharmaceutical companies, and does so primarily by depicting the life of Nan Goldin; a life depicted as a composition of photographs and struggles, both intimately intertwined to give each other greater resonance.
American photographer and activist, Nan Goldin is a founding member of the advocacy group P.A.I.N (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), an organisation founded in 2017 in response to the opioid crisis and which protests specifically against the production and distribution of Oxycontin by the Sackler family company. In the early days of her work, Nan Goldin began filming the actions of P.A.I.N and some members of the organisation had the ambition to develop a documentary giving voice to their struggle. Poitras became involved in this project, and her documentary turned into a work about and with Nan Goldin.
The result is a portrait: of Goldin, of the issues and power dynamics at play in Goldin's life, of a struggle against Purdue Pharma after Goldin’s own addiction to Oxycontin.
The coming together of these two women to speak with one voice has a de facto natural legitimacy. Both Goldin and Poitras are artists whose works are continually at risk, due to the societal norms they question, and who display a wholehearted dedication to the causes they defend. Indeed, both make minor voices speak in their art and show bodies saturated, wounded and made precarious by the voices of American imperialism.
Poitras illustrated these themes especially through My Country, My Country (2006), where she gave voice to Dr Riyadh al-Adhadh against the American occupation of Iraq, or through Citizenfour (2014), a documentary about and with Edward Snowden. Likewise, Goldin’s photographs of lives within the American queer community show the effects of the HIV virus and, more broadly, living on the fringe of society. Additionally photographs of her family life after the suicide of her sister, who suffered from the non-consideration of psychiatric authorities, share a similar polemical approach.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is two things: a description of P.A.I.N's struggle against the Sackler family and a collaborative work of art which questions the foundations of American identity. The documentary is an outcry against the US allowing the enrichment of corporations through the abuse of power, fierce psychological brutalisation and the sweeping away of all considerations of justice. Purdue Pharma's imperialism over sick bodies, addicted minds and suffocating escape routes is exposed over 121 minutes.
The parallels drawn with fragments of Goldin's life, portrayed by Poitras, underline the gap between hegemonic forces and local hotbeds of resistance. By inserting photographs taken by Goldin into the documentary's narrative, alternating between the festive and intimate as well as the truly dark, Poitras succeeds in bringing to the centre what a society that promotes justice and freedom should look like.
The film is an impactful mosaic of interviews with P.A.I.N. members; fragments of Goldin's own life; the responsible faces of the Sackler family reacting to testimonies and complaints during a Zoom call; and videos of P.A.I.N's actions in various museums. This documentary-portrait seeks to make visible the deep hypocrisy of the Sacklers' philanthropism, which financed many museums and exhibitions, and whose name was thus engraved everywhere. This insidious philanthropy is contrasted with the independent, courageous art of Goldin and Poitras, who are far removed from funding.
In addition to being an illuminating and pointed report on the opioid crisis, the film succeeds in questioning the components of a nation's identity, and takes up the challenge of representing social and political struggles through artistic expression. Awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, by sublimating the convergence of Goldin and Poitras, is an ode to resistance.
Featured image: by Laura Poitras, Courtesy of IMDB
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed was screened at Bristol's Watershed in partnership with the Queer Vision Film Festival.