Who is Nan Goldin? For people who are not photography enthusiasts, this name probably doesn’t sound familiar. I had personally never heard of her, so when I heard that she was the subject of Laura Poitras’ new documentary film All The Beauty and The Bloodshed, premiering globally at the 2022 Venice Film Festival, my curiosity was tickled.
Let’s go back to the initial question: who is Nan Goldin? It’s an interesting query, as Nan Goldin is many things all at once. Poitras approaches her to film her activism against the Sackler family, the owner of Purdue Pharma, a big pharmaceutical company responsible for the distribution and sale of OxyContin, a drug that has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths over the course of roughly 15 years (and who is at the center of the Emmy-nominated limited series Dopesick from Hulu). She has led protests in many a museum, including the Met Museum and the Guggenheim in New York, the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Louvre in Paris, to ask those museums to cut their ties and rescind their funding agreements with the Sacklers. She just didn’t want the art world to be connected to the deaths of so many people, and she stuck to her guns throughout, risking being pushed out of the art world she’s so inextricably part of. In exploring this recent part of her life, Poitras finds a way to connect Goldin’s activism to her artistic roots, planted in New York City in the 1970s, when the city was a dynamic, ever-changing roller coaster, a world in which Goldin used photography to express her views on sexuality, feminism, marriage, family and much, much more.
Every so often there are films that touch a person very deeply, shaking them to their core. All The Beauty and The Bloodshed is that film for me. It is a masterpiece of profound humanity, of acute sensitivity, of extreme emotional purity that left me spellbound in quite a few moments. Discovering Nan Goldin, her work, her life, her fragilities and vulnerability but also her unlimited strength was a touching journey into the heart of a woman so extraordinary that a two-hours documentary cannot possibly do her justice. Reading about her after the movie ended, I found out that she has often been called a rebel, and I find such words to be reductive. She’s the epitome of the free spirit, who’s always ready to challenge social conventions, injustice, inequality through art, facing the potential consequences of her actions but never afraid of them.
Poitras puts a figurative lens on her (we never see Nan Goldin’s face while she recounts the past events of her life) and that lens works as a kaleidoscope of sorts, constantly on the chase of that fleeting glimpse that will finally give us a final portrait of a woman but also very aware that it’s impossible to capture and fix that spirit into a single visual frame or audible line. It makes sense that Poitras decided to structure this film into chapters that bookend Nan Goldin’s life and works through the various stages of her life, as hard as it may be: this way, Goldin appears to be telling her story as a sort of autobiography, from her childhood days in Massachusetts to her life in New York, Boston, Berlin, telling the stories of her lifelong friends, her lovers, her feminist experiences and the harsh, terrifying reality of AIDS first and the opioid epidemic later. Her voice is always lucid, rarely faltering, never regretting, as it would fit an extraordinary person in what is probably my favorite film of the year.
This review is from the 2022 Venice Film Festival. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed will be released theatrically by NEON later this year.