Best Documentary

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed – Film Review

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed – Film Review
by Frank L

Directed by Laura Poitras
Stars – Nan Goldin, David Armstrong (archive footage), Marina Berio

Nan Goldin is an innovative photographer whose work, along with her book “The ballad of sexual dependency” (published in 1986), has deservedly brought her international acclaim. That book is “dedicated to the real memory of my sister, Barbara Holly Goldin”. Although Barbara died by her own hand in 1965, her life and death remain for Goldin a seminal event. Goldin saw the role that Barbara’s sexuality and its repression played in her destruction and states in the early sixties “women who were angry and sexual were frightening, outside the range of acceptable behaviour, beyond control. By the time [Barbara] was eighteen, she saw that her only way to get out was to lie down on the tracks of the commuter train outside of Washington, D.C. It was an act of immense will.”

Poitras sets out to depict Goldin’s lifelong challenge to repression. Goldin has made no secret of the fact that she was a user of addictive drugs. In 2014, while in Berlin she was prescribed OxyContin before surgery for tendonitis and probably because of her long association with drugs became addicted almost instantaneously. OxyContin was the driver of the opioid crisis which killed hundreds of thousands of individuals in the States. It was manufactured and promoted by Purdue Pharma, which was owned by the Sackler family. The Sackler family were prolific donors of rare and valuable artefacts to museums and galleries throughout the world. Goldin’s work is shown in many of the same institutions. Goldin believed that the role of the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma needed to be exposed. Poitras shows the energy and intelligence that Goldin and her fellow activists employed in order to bring public attention to the connection between these revered objects, the venerable institutions which housed them and the Sacklers. Goldin was determined to have the name of Sackler removed from these institutions and have Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family held to account. It is a David and Goliath story.

The documentary shows the clever, beautiful but deeply subversive protests in the Guggenheim and the Met.  In particular, the fluttering mass of OxyContin prescriptions descending slowly onto the floor of the Guggenheim is a joy to behold. It is a fine piece of performance art. It shows the careful planning that went into these events. These protests had their inspiration in ActUp protests which were a response to the silence of officialdom to the AIDS crisis twenty years earlier. This was a previous world with which Goldin had an intimate connection. Many of her friends had died of AIDS.

Poitras marshalls this wealth of material into a compelling narrative as Goldin and her small band of warriors take on the Sackler family, Purdue Pharma and the institutional art world. Although the principal story is the gross abuse of power by a family obsessed with greed, it also exposes the ease by which the Sacklers were able to use their ill-gotten gains to appear as civilised with their vast donations to art institutions. Art was used to “wash” their reputations, creating a new association for the family.

Poitras shows Goldin’s overpowering need to proclaim the corruption which underlay the Sackler donations.  It follows Goldin’s need to show honesty in relationships including the sexual ones in her photographic images. It shows Goldin’s understanding of power and how it is used for nefarious and lethal purposes. Notwithstanding the harrowing nature of the story, it is a tale that is told beautifully. The film deservedly won in Venice 2022 the Golden Lion for best film.

Categories: Best Documentary, Header, Movie Review, Movies

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