Laura Poitras and Nan Goldin collaborate on a portrait of the artist

Photo by Nan Goldin, as seen in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.

Documentarian Laura Poitras (Citizenfour) collaborates with queer artist Nan Goldin in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, the 2022 Oscar-nominated film recently released in a Blu-Ray package from Criterion Collection. A celebration of Goldin’s art and her activism, the documentary takes the viewer through the artist’s life, showing what led to her fight against the Sackler family (the powerful, wealthy folks behind the now bankrupt Purdue Pharma and opiate Oxycontin).

Goldin and her fellow members of PAIN – the organization she started – orchestrate their first protest at the New York Metropolitan Museum in 2018, against the “toxic philanthropy” (in Poitras’ words) of the Sacklers. There’s an arresting visual potency to their method of protest. Dozens of empty pill bottles float in the water of the Sackler wing of the museum as the activists stage a die-in. This stunning, memorable opening prepares the audience for the unique story and visual style in the work to follow.

Nan Goldin in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.

Poitras joined the project after Goldin had been filming for 1.5 years. In one of the special features within this Criterion package, they speak in a panel about the plan for the original film centering on PAIN and recovery. Through Poitras’ interviews with the artist, illustrated with her photography and punctuated by excerpts from her slideshows, Goldin’s personal story unfolds.

The death of her sister as a teen, her own search for identity, her chosen family, and the diverse community of artists she surrounded herself with are all explored through Goldin’s dry, honest narration. The artist is frank about surviving abuse from a past partner and her later addiction to pain medication. The radical nature of her photography — or so it was seen at the time — is paralleled by the radical aspects of her work with PAIN.

The composition and editing of All the Beauty and the Bloodshed are detailed and considered. The form of the film is an art itself, as moments from Goldin’s early life inform the activist she is now. Goldin’s touch is audible in the songs she selected to punctuate the film. Soundwalk Collective also wrote original scoring for the film at her request.

The documentary is light on expert interviews, keeping the focus on Goldin’s own voice. Incredible archival video is incorporated into the work. There’s a timeless urgency to David Wojnarowicz’s response to the controversy surrounding the program he wrote for the 1989 Artist’s Space show Goldin curated, even though he and other artists from the show have been dead for decades.

Goldin and Poitras create a moving work that reflects the original voice of the artist at its heart. The broadened scope by Poitras gives All the Beauty and the Bloodshed more emotional heft, accompanied by haunting visuals from Goldin. The resulting film is as much an inspiring call to action as it is a remarkable portrait of the artist.

The special features on the Criterion BluRay include:

  • a trailer for the theatrical release
  • a Criterion interview with filmmaker Laura Poitras. She provides a retrospective on her early work, speaks about her collaboration with Goldin after a chance encounter in 2019, and confesses her affinity for the “drama of real time.” She talks about the level of detail in this film’s editing, and the overall goal for the work of removing stigma.
  • a post-screening conversation from NY Film Festival involving Goldin, Poitras, and a few members of PAIN. “I found my fight and it kept me sober,” Goldin says of her work with PAIN. Poitras comments, “my films are portraits.”
  • a panel from that same NYFF with Goldin on Art and Activism. She shares that Maggie Smith, her boss at Tin Pan Alley, was the first to point out how political her art was. She discusses PAIN as her art, and how the group’s protests were arranged according to the specific venue/space involved. “This film is an act of political action.”
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