Laura Poitras realizes that even an Oscar cannot protect her from the American government. The 58-year-old filmmaker has built a career making documentaries that anger those in power, from the 2006 film about the US invasion of Iraq to the 2014 Academy Award-winning film about intelligence “whistleblower” Edward Snowden. She faced threats of intimidation and prosecution.
His new movie, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, follows the billionaire Sackler family, who manufactures the pharmaceutical company OxyContin, the highly addictive drug that triggered America’s opioid crisis and killed an estimated half a million people. A deep exploration of how power works and what makes an artist rebel. At its center is photographer Nan Goldin, who became addicted to OxyContin overnight after being prescribed medication for knee surgery and nearly died of an overdose. She spent five years trying to force the art world to stop taking money from the Sacklers.
In the middle of our video call, Poitras receives the news that the film has been nominated for an Oscar. “I need to call Nan,” he says, interrupting briefly before turning back emotionally. “This means a lot.”
For millions of Americans, the OxyContin scandal is a tragedy. The ruthless marketing of synthetic opioid pain relievers to doctors by the Sackler family business, Purdue Pharma, opened the gates of the barrage. Purdue claimed the addiction rate was “well below one percent” among “physician-treated pain patients.” This has allowed OxyContin to be commonly prescribed as an analgesic rather than a morphine for severe pain. Yet the risks were much higher than claimed. Deaths from opioid addiction are still on the rise.
“My anger is personal,” says Goldin in Poitras’ film. “I hate these people.” He directly blames the Sacklers, the same Sackler family whose philanthropy has benefited museums and art galleries around the world for decades, from the Louvre in Paris to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. In the UK, it has been proven in the Sackler rooms at the British Museum and in a Sackler wing, in the Sackler galleries of both the Serpentine and the National Gallery, in the Sackler courtyard at the V&A. “We are proud to be supported by Sacklers,” Tristram Hunt, the museum’s director, told the BBC in July 2019.
The film documents these galleries as they step one step at a time under the pressure of the public “deaths” of Nan Goldin and his activist group PAIN. Sackler began to refuse donations – “the UK was the first to act,” Poitras notes, “it was the National Portrait Gallery and they deserve tremendous praise; Tate was second and then it had a domino effect” – and then the British Museum and the V&A’s eventual passing. They began removing the Sackler name, as it had done last year, but discrediting rather than moral outrage seems to have been the catalyst. [into it]”says Poitras.
Poitras was acutely aware of the difficulties Goldin might face in pursuing his attempts to bring the Sacklers to account. “It was really risky for Nan,” says Poitras. “when you know [the Sacklers] they were spending $30 million a month on legal fees… it’s an army of lawyers. [They] it can make your life miserable and then get spied on, find guys taking pictures outside your house, stuff like that, scary stuff. This is what happens to Goldin and the other members of PAIN in the movie, as the surveillance takes place in broad daylight. There is a note at the end that says Sacklers refutes the espionage allegations as “untrue”.
In fact, the producers were able to track down the man seen watching from a parked car in the movie. “He works for a surveillance security firm. We filmed it when we talked to him, and we decided not to film it because we actually sympathized with him. He didn’t know who he was being hired to follow. As you can see, it’s pure intimidation because he’s not trying to hide his tracks.”
Poitras himself has been ostensibly the target of intimidation tactics since his Oscar-nominated film My Country, My Country, which shows what life is like for ordinary Iraqis in Baghdad as the US tries to hold democratic elections. Every time he flew, he was subject to airport detention and invasive searches; He would return home to find the apartment door open.
That didn’t stop America’s National Security Agency – and Britain’s GCHQ – from doing Citizenfour about Edward Snowden, a former US intelligence computer consultant who leaked classified information revealing how he routinely spied on our phone calls and online communications. He was Snowden’s first point of contact; It was Poitras who arranged to meet this anonymous source in Hong Kong, where he would be standing in front of a hotel restaurant in Kowloon with a Rubik’s cube in his hand.
He then followed up with an all-encompassing portrait of Julian Assange, titled Risk, published in 2017, two years before Assange was accused by the United States of publishing classified material under the Espionage Act (which does not allow for public interest defense). Online via WikiLeaks. If extradited from the UK and convicted, he could face up to 175 years in prison. “The trial of Julian Assange in the United States is currently the biggest threat to press freedom worldwide,” says Poitras.
There are possible implications for Poitras personally. “If you look at the letter of what he’s accused of, there’s no difference between the job I’ve done,” he says.
As a documentarian, Poitras is not an impartial observer. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, she says, “is a lesson in the importance of activism. And the need for perseverance, because if they had done a few shows… we would still have gotten into the Met and the Sackler name would have been there.
The concessions of the galleries are “meaningful” but “that’s not justice, is it? Despite mountains of evidence showing that people know they have become addicted, since the Sacklers themselves have not been charged with crimes… There is still hope and time for the US Department of Justice to indict the Sacklers, especially Richard Sackler. brain.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is the way its episodes form one of the most investigative portraits of an artist ever filmed. Photographs of Goldin’s own “tribe” – transvestites, lesbians, foreigners of all kinds – taken during his years, outside of society, capture the magnificence and misery of people, time and place with an unprecedented directness. it has since influenced film, fashion and photography.
The film makes a direct connection between the opioid crisis and the impact of AIDS in the 1980s. “It was like WWII,” Goldin recalls, “We watched everybody disappear and there was nothing we could do.” Poitras details his struggle to force political leaders to stop viewing it as a gay plague, and includes striking images of artist David Wojnarowicz (who would die of the disease in 1992).
He cites the controversy that arose when he dared to criticize a religious figure for the way the church responded to the crisis. “What makes me laugh,” he says, “isn’t it great that the images and words a person can form are powerful enough to create this storm of debate? That means there’s a crack in the wall of knowledge control.”
“I’m really interested in these cracks,” says Poitras, “and Nan and PAIN found one. You can create change – there are really powerful forces that are destructive, but it’s important for individuals to take a stand.”
All the Beauty and the Blood is now in theaters