Academy Award-winning filmmaker Laura Poitras has spent her career curiously and fearlessly creating portraits of people grounded in political struggle. Forfeiting comforts most of us wouldn’t dream of, Poitras uses film as a tool for exposure, making immense sacrifices along the way: whistleblowing, living in exile, prodding the highest echelons of institutional power.
Poitras latest film, All The Beauty And The Bloodshed, is a portrait of an extraordinary woman: photographer Nan Goldin, whose raw photographs of queer and bohemian outcasts first appeared in the 1980s, changing the landscape of photography forever. All The Beauty And The Bloodshed juxtaposes Goldin’s slideshow photographs from throughout her career with her own narration of her life alongside in-depth interviews with her opioid activist group PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) and close friends.
Poitras originally came on board the project to help document Goldin’s recent activism amid the opioid crisis, but as the film unravels, the audience is shown a deeper portrait of an artist who has consistently fought against oppression. The work is an intimate portrayal of Goldin’s family history, her HIV/AIDS activism, addictions, obsessions, friendships, lovers and work to reveal recurring themes: struggle against institutional power, resilience in the face of trauma and finding the beauty in the underbelly of society.
🗞️ Laura Poitras and the art of whistleblowing
The convergence of Poitras and Goldin feels like it was meant to be, and the film has recently earned Poitras another Oscar nomination (her groundbreaking Citizenfour won Best Documentary Feature in 2015). We sat down with Poitras to talk about creating portraits rather than biopics, Berlin connections and the camera’s many effects.
All The Beauty And The Bloodshed is not a linear film – there’s the fight against big pharma, the HIV/AIDS crisis, family trauma and of course an artist portrait. When you were shooting it, did a lightbulb come on, like, ‘This is the structure!’? It’s fascinating to see it unravel…
The Sacklers knew – documents show they knew what was happening
Some of it happened in the editing process. PAIN was the contemporary throughline of the film from the start – I always knew that that would be one of the interwoven story threads.
I never imagined it being chronological, like first Nan’s history and then ending with her recent activism. So we started the film with audio interviews, and they had a level of intimacy and depth that I couldn’t have predicted when I began the film – there’s something about the quality of Nan’s voice and the rawness to how it works alongside her photographs, it provides a different context. I also knew I wanted to have a convergence between the AIDS crisis and the overdose crisis, but it was only in the editing stage and with amazing editors, like Joe Bini, that it came together.
Bini’s an incredible dramaturge; he thinks about themes. We talked about what we want this film to be like, and there were a lot of things we didn’t want it to be. We didn’t want it to be a standard biopic. We didn’t want it to be experts telling you about Nan, why this photograph is meaningful or why Nan Goldin is where she stands. None of those traditional kinds of approaches.
So it’s a portrait. We wanted it to show that there are certain things that motivate Nan as an artist that were important to foreground. It’s not just the tragedies that are in the film, like her sister’s death, but the denialism. Her family’s denialism and society’s denialism and the rage against that. This brutal society denies people suffering. So those were the themes we wanted to hit on, the interweaving emerged from that.
Your portraits are grounded in story and storytelling, but the subjects just so happen to be in extreme political situations. Do you typically start with your subjects, or the sociopolitical issues they’re on the front lines of?
I’d leave at night and wonder, how many spies will be following me?
I would not have made the film about the overdose crisis if I didn’t meet Nan. It began as a portrait and the fact that she was using her power in the art world and her unique knowledge of being addicted to OxyContin.
She had a lot of authority to take on the Sackler family, I was really interested in how she was using it. But I guess sometimes it’s the themes. And then I have to look for the people who I want to tell it through, for instance, the film I made in Iraq [My Country, My Country, 2006]. I was compelled to make something about a contradiction – that the US invaded Iraq to bring democracy, that being at war with a country would bring democracy. So I said, I’m going to follow the elections because that’s going to tell me about this impossible contradiction. I went to Iraq and started looking for who I could follow over time that would allow me to tell that story.
The people who I follow inform me of everything. And my perceptions have to change based on the experience that people are having. So, for instance, that was the story of Dr. Riyadh. He was very critical of the US occupation, but he participated in the elections. So I had to become a little less cynical because I saw a person willing to risk their life for this.
Can you remember the first time you saw Goldin’s work?
I first saw The Ballad of Sexual Dependency [Goldin’s 1985 slide show exhibition and 1986 artist’s book of photographs taken between 1979 and 1986] in San Francisco in the late 1980s. My photographer roommate had moved from Boston [where Nan began her photography career], and she had a copy of The Ballad. It was so radical, so revolutionary. Nan’s work has been all about creating a history and record of the people that she loves and cares about that society often doesn’t, and The Ballad is dedicated to the real memory of her sister. It’s raw, intimate and cinematic. The visuals and the frames are incredible.
So that’s the first time, and then later, I saw the slideshow versions of her work. I felt so emotionally moved by the experience of viewing the slideshows that I trusted it would translate to the viewer. If we were to introduce another person or a camera, that intimacy would get lost.
Berlin has such a strong echo of memory for both Nan and you. For you, the city was a refuge, escaping threat from the US government. And for Nan, it’s the place where her life changes dramatically.
In All The Beauty And The Bloodshed, we see her ending up in hospital and being prescribed OxyContin for the first time. Can you talk about your mutual connection to the city?
I woke up this morning walking around thinking about the importance of Berlin, both for my work and for Nan.
It was in Berlin where Nan was working on the The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. She was invited to the Berlinale with it. Alf Bold, Arsenal cinema’s then-programme director and a renowned curator, was a close friend of hers. It was with this that her work became solidified internationally. So it’s a really important place for her, and she spent so much time here. And then obviously there’s a scene in the film where she experiences domestic violence from her boyfriend at the time – that also happened in Berlin.
As for me, it’s been a place of refuge. I came here in 2012 because of the harassment I was receiving from the US government and being placed on a terrorist watch list. I was stopped at the border every time I travelled. In Berlin, I was able to work and not experience harassment whilst reporting in partnership with Der Spiegel about Edward Snowden and the NSA. When I was living here before, I didn’t know whether I’d be able to go back to the US. My lawyers were saying it might not be safe because of how much government anger had been created through those disclosures.
I mean, we caused a lot of trouble! I would go to Der Spiegel’s office, by Brandenburg Gate, and the US embassy is right there. I’d leave at night and wonder, how many spies will be following me? And they were thinking, “What are we going to do? There she is again, at Der Spiegel!” Then, the next day, it would be the front page news. It was like this week after week. So it was a pretty intense time to be in Berlin. I’m really grateful for the city for providing me with a place of protection, because I’m sure if it didn’t, other places might not have been as safe.
Your background is in experimental film, and you were taught by experimental filmmakers. How much has this influenced your work in documentary film?
My first teacher was Ernie Gehr, a very radical filmmaker. His work, such as Serene Velocity, is an exercise in perception about a hallway. There are no protagonists, there’s an arc, but it’s a very different type of filmmaking. I still carry a lot of that, and the work of filmmakers like Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton and Peggy Ahwesh. I love that work and the radical avant garde nature of it.
In a way, it’s so Nan; I was introduced to her work when I was introduced to all those filmmakers. It’s a much less traditionally narrative type of storytelling. So that feels very comfortable to me. I always rely on the fact that my films do have protagonists, so they can play to larger audiences than experimental films, but my roots are still there.
The film that I made in Yemen called The Oath, one of the protagonists is Salim Ahmed Hamdan, who’s in Guantanamo Bay prison, and we never met him. I felt confident we could do that because I’m from an experimental film perspective and felt like, okay, we can have a missing protagonist in the film, we just have this voice.
Do you ever feel self-conscious that the camera either adds or breaks a layer of trust in the room, or that it takes time for you to connect with your subject because of it?
You can’t say it ever goes away; it’s always there, it’s a presence. My feeling about it, usually filming in situations, is that there’s a lot at stake, and that’s one of the reasons why the camera’s invited – because there’s so much at stake. But it’s always a factor in the room, and when Edward Snowden talks about being in Hong Kong [in Citizenfour], I went into the room and took out the camera, partly as a defence because I was so freaked out and nervous. It was like okay, I have to do this. When people take extreme risks, there’s a possibility that it could be erased, so documenting them is important. I am very careful that I film people that I really feel have the agency to consent.
In terms of the Sacklers, who own the pharmaceutical companies that manufactured the OxyContin, can one hope for indictment or accountability now?
This brutal society denies people suffering.
I really hope that they’re indicted on criminal charges. Particularly Richard Sackler. Because it’s a terrible precedent not to.
The Sacklers knew – documents show they knew what was happening, and they just kept pushing and pushing this drug to make more money. Right now, there’s this bankruptcy deal that is still under appeal, but the Sacklers themselves didn’t have to file for bankruptcy. They took all the money out of the company, and then they put it all overseas. I really do hope that they’re indicted. I don’t know if that’s going to happen.
I also think that the CIA employees who tortured people should be indicted. I think the US is pretty bad at dealing with accountability to gross abuses of power. It’s really, really dark. The Justice Department could – that’s the thing, they could. I mean, Richard Sackler is alive. There’s mountains of evidence. Dope Sick [2021 mini-series based on a book by Beth Macy] is really powerful. And Patrick Radden Keefe’s book Empire of Pain. And yet they go free and get away with it. It’s like Nan says, “a billionaire justice system in the US”. They have armies of lawyers and the Sacklers were paying lawyers $30 million a month.
Are films mirrors of our time or should they be used for more than that?
I think that there’s a lot of people who are building powerful impact campaigns around film. So I do think that there are more films that can themselves shift something in terms of people’s understanding, awareness or consciousness.
- All The Beauty And The Bloodshed is out in Germany on May 25