Runtime: 113 minutes
Director: Laura Poitras
Starring: Nan Goldin
By Calum Cooper
Laura Poitras’ “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” (2022) is a triumph! Documentaries are designed to inform and engage with the subject matters that they depict, of which this one does spectacularly. However, it goes the extra mile through its collaboration and creative structure. In the process, it becomes an insightful look not just at the incredible life of its central heroine, but at the ways that art and solidarity can trounce greed and apathy through sheer tenacity.
Poitras examines the life of Nan Goldin. Goldin is a renowned photographer who has captured stunning images throughout her career. Yet, Goldin’s talents are a precursor to the wider topics being showcased. Goldin is also a staunch activist, and is currently raising awareness for victims of the opioid crisis. She is particularly interested in this as the museums to whom she has submitted her photography have benefitted from the Sackler family, an affluent family who lied about opioids and thus profited greatly off of the crisis. Poitras documents Goldin and her fellow activists as they fight to hold the Sacklers accountable.
What makes “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” such a remarkable work is the way it balances its various sources to create a crystal clear whole. Goldin is very collaborative with Poitras and her team in order to create this portrait. Although the film is primarily concerning Goldin’s photography and activism, it also details her early life and certain tragedies that occurred around her, including the death of her sister, and particularly how her circle of friends was affected by the AIDS crisis. These are all interesting insights into her life, but they are gathered and utilised in order to create a full picture on how these events have built Goldin’s character, influenced her art and fueled her beliefs.
The engagement of which Poitras has with Goldin as her subject matter is as impressive as the film’s creativity. Separated into six chapters, the film utilises photography – both images of the past and Goldin’s own art – and presents them in a fashion akin to powerpoint slides before reverting back to the chronology of Goldin’s activism. In the process, an intimate throughline is connected between everything within the film. Through understanding Goldin’s past, we are able to understand her present, and the personal stakes she has in bringing down the Sacklers.
Each of these chapters builds on the next to create the full canvas of Goldin’s life. Her life is absolutely fascinating, with a lot of unconventional, even raunchy, paths that she went down. Yet each experience created the artist, the activist and the woman that she is today. Although Poitras occasionally uses superimposed text or voiceover narration to fill in the gaps, she otherwise lets Goldin take the reins during the interview segments. There is an empathy and an understanding between the two that allows the story of Goldin and her life to flow kinetically. It is immaculately absorbing, even ignoring the creative craftsmanship on display.
“Clever, sensitive, and thematically rich, it is an impressive juggling act of dot connecting that does justice and more to the person and movements it is championing.”
The interweaving plotlines, under another director, could’ve come across as bloated or aimless. But through Poitras’ direction, the music, and the collaborative editing from Amy Foote, Joe Bini and Brian A. Kates, this documentary becomes not just a poignant account of an incredible woman’s life. It is also an anti-avarice piece, a pro-solidarity piece, and a proud advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and mental health awareness. Even its title alludes to the unconventional nature of both Goldin and her life. For all of the art and actions depicted as standard or traditional is revealed to have been built on bloodshed and blood money, as Goldin’s activism uncovers. Yet all of the strange, quirky or unorthodox practices, groups and art that Goldin has engaged with all her life are revealed to have hidden beauty and depth that the recognised standard does not have. In this way, this is a documentary that informs, and continues to inform the deeper you go into its presentation.
“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” is a wonderful documentary about a brilliant woman. Clever, sensitive, and thematically rich, it is an impressive juggling act of dot connecting that does justice and more to the person and movements it is championing. So articulate and immersive is its craft that one hopes its winning of the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival opens the door to more awards for documentaries. They are an often underappreciated form of cinema, and it is movies like this that prove just how powerful a tool one well made documentary can be.