Laura Poitras film spotlights activist photographer Goldin

VENICE, Italy — When filmmaker Laura Poitras went to meet American photographer Nan Goldin about a project to document her protests against museums accepting money from the Sackler family, Goldin was slightly worried.

“My worry when she came on was that I didn’t have any state secrets to share and I wasn’t important enough for this,” Goldin said Saturday in Venice.

The Oscar-winning filmmaker behind the Edward Snowden documentary “Citizenfour” was already in on the prospect of “the present-day horror story of a billionaire family knowingly creating an epidemic, and then funneling money into museums in exchange for tax write-offs and naming galleries,” she said. But soon she realized this was only part of a much bigger story involving the whole of Goldin’s life and work.

The result is “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” which is having its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival on Saturday, where it is part of the main competition slate. Poitras, before the premiere, thanked the festival for recognizing that “documentary is cinema.”

“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” is by all accounts an epic, interweaving Goldin’s past and present through her works, intimate conversations and powerful connections between the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and the overdose epidemic of today.

“We knew that we didn’t want to make a biography film, or a typical artist portrait,” Poitras said. “Nan’s life deserves an epic film, for what she’s done, what she’s accomplished and the risks she’s taken. We wanted it to have an epic quality.”

Goldin, whose work has always been about “removing stigma,” said her attention turned to the Sacklers when she got out of a clinic to get sober. She had only known the Sacklers as philanthropists, but then started reading articles about opioid overdoses and Purdue Phama and knew she had to do something.

Sackler is a name that has become synonymous with Purdue Pharma, the company that developed OxyContin, a widely prescribed and widely abused painkiller. Purdue has faced a barrage of lawsuits alleging that it helped spark an addiction and overdose crisis linked to more than 500,000 deaths in the U.S. over the past two decades.

Foundations run by members of the Sackler family have given tens of millions of dollars to museums, including the Guggenheim in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and funded work at Oxford and Yale.

“The things I do are not a choice,” Goldin said. “My thought was how can I shame them amongst their own social strata?”

In recent years, the Guggenheim, the Louvre in Paris, the Tate in London and the Jewish Museum in Berlin have all distanced themselves from the family, in part because of Goldin’s protests. In 2019, the Met announced it would stop taking monetary gifts from Sacklers connected to Purdue Pharma.

Now, Goldin has turned her attention to harm reduction.

“We were never anti-opioid,” Goldin said. “We were anti-overdose and people making money off of overdose.”

Poitras said they kept the project a little bit under the radar intentionally. It’s bound to create “some nervousness” on boards, she thinks, as Poitras said the Sacklers aren’t the only name doing this.

Neon acquired the film last month for distribution and will release a retrospective of Goldin’s work, opening Oct. 29 at Moderna Museet in Stockholm.

“My proudest thing is we brought down a billionaire family,” Goldin said. “We brought one down. So far.”


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