For famed photographer Nan Goldin, life, art and activism have long been inseparable. That continues into the present with Goldin’s fight to hold Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family accountable for the opioid epidemic, a crusade documented by Academy Award-winning director Laura Poitras (2014’s “Citizenfour”) in her new film, “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” screening Feb. 9-10 at the Jane Pickens Theater.
The film has earned numerous critical accolades and is the frontrunner to win the Oscar for best documentary.
Poitras weaves multiple narratives in the film. Part biography, part art history and part thriller, the threads are held together by Goldin, a storyteller who has never shied from depicting her own trauma in her photographs. Without reservation or pretension, Goldin talks about her addiction to Oxycontin, developed when she was prescribed the drug after undergoing surgery while living in Berlin. Her intake rose quickly from three pills daily to 18.
In 2017, she founded the advocacy group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), which aimed to convince arts institutions, including museums with Goldin’s photographs in their permanent collections, to stop accepting Sackler family money and laundering the Sackler name by putting it in places of honor.
“They have washed their blood money through the halls of museums and universities around the world,” she says in the film.
Goldin understood that as a world-renowned artist, she’d grab attention for the direct actions, such as the one that opens the film. In 2018, Goldin and dozens of P.A.I.N. activists filled the Sackler wing of The Metropolitan Museum chanting “Sacklers lie, people die.” They dropped to the ground for a die-in, recalling similar protests by ACT UP activists during the AIDS epidemic. In another action, P.A.I.N. members released hundreds of prescription slips that fluttered down from the top of the Guggenheim Museum in a compelling visual.
Poitras traces Goldin’s early life as the child of Jewish parents in suburban Boston in the 1950s. Her beloved older sister, Barbara, committed suicide in 1965 at the age of 18 after many years in and out of psychiatric hospitals. The trauma of her tragic end pushed Nancy to literally run away at 14 from suburban conformity and sexual repression.
After living in several foster homes, she enrolled in the alternative Satya Community School in Lincoln, Massachusetts, where she found kinship with fellow photographer David Armstrong. “I brought him out and he named me Nan, so we liberated each other,” she says in the film.
Goldin later found her tribe in Boston. Between 1972 and 1974, she lived with a group of drag queens who frequented the bar, The Other Side. The black-andwhite photographs shot at the club provide a rich historical tapestry in the film and show Goldin’s developing but distinctive, informal, yet bracingly intimate style.
After graduating from Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts in 1978, Goldin moved to New York City’s Bowery, finding a family, albeit a dysfunctional one, among the outsiders, artists, junkies, hookers and drag queens as she continued to document her life among them. The film includes generous samplings of Goldin’s early, influential slide shows set to music, such as 1979’s “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” which she screened at New York’s punk rock clubs.
The documentary connects Goldin’s role as artist and activist calling out the lies and silence around AIDS to her present war against the stigmatization of opioid addiction and to expose the Sacklers’ deliberate deceptions.
By the end of the film, Goldin’s life and art come full circle. There is a poignant coda about her parents and her sister, whose eloquent, heartbreaking letters provide the film with its haunting title.
Barbara’s short life still looms large for Goldin, influencing the trauma in her art as well as her position as an outsider from which she continues to challenge institutional indifference and abuses of power.