Laura Poitras’s latest documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed weaves together two narratives within the same woman’s life. Nan Goldin, the iconic and often radical photographer known for taking intimate portraits of loved ones within the counterculture, now dedicates her time to performance art and activist work that draws attention to the opioid epidemic and the corrupt and cruel nature of the Sackler family, creators of the drug Oxycontin.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed moves us through these two chapters of Goldin’s life with seamless ease: a natural, almost intuitive flow that is a testament to Poitras’ absolute masterful documentary filmmaking skill. We move between stunning archival footage backtracked by Goldin’s own voice reminiscing upon her past (chapters of which are often deeply traumatic, though Goldin speaks of it with a collected and tender coolness) and Poitras’s present-day recording of Goldin’s modern work of performance art in museums — die-in protests, the throwing about of pill bottles, mock-ups of prescriptions that reveal the Sackler family’s corrupt involvement in the death of hundreds of thousands, and her threats to remove her own work from the most prestigious of museums who are still accepting blood money.
These two slices of Goldin’s life are made up of a multitude of beautiful, rich, complicated threads that are interwoven. Goldin has lived a life not of solitude, but one entrenched in the web of community. Her past does not consist of herself alone — though that is part of it, a girl young and troubled, finding a small home in a camera — but is also a story of her parents, her sister who died when she was young, the first real friends she ever had. As she ages and her community grows, Goldin’s life and work are suddenly as much about Cookie Mueller, living and dying with a vibrance at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, or about her long-term partner who turned abruptly abusive. Much the same, her present work is not centered in her singular recovery from her own Oxy addiction or her own drive to take down the Sackler family — it is the story of many. Goldin is almost constantly surrounded by friends and community and activist groups that she invites into her home as they seek justice, whose hands she holds as they testify to their group suffering.
The thread that connects the entirety of All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is the connective human urge for justice and for community, and the many ways in which we can be additive to the cause. Even art as means of revolution and community action takes a multitude of forms throughout — from performance art to photography to museum and archival work to oral history to Poitras’ filmmaking itself, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed posits that there certainly is work to be done, but can, and often is, a vibrant and connective practice as often as it is painful and necessary.