all the beauty and the bloodshed review

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is the year’s best documentary

4.5 out of 5 stars

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed opens with photographer Nan Goldin reflecting on the nature of storytelling. “It’s easy,” she says, “to make your life into stories, but it’s hard to sustain memories.” Setting the stage for the documentary, a portrait of Goldin’s life and her tireless activism against the Sackler company and oxycontin, the documentary examines the lines between myth and reality. How does real life’s messy, unstructured nature reconcile with the imagination? 

Though Goldin shifted to editorial work as she gained prominence, the origins of her photography were in the personal realm. Treating photography as a notepad, she photographed her day-to-day and the people who populated it. While living and working in queer artist spaces, her subjects were her friends and collaborators. Her photos became a way for her to remember, snapshots of emotions and people, unburdened by the unreliability of memory. 

Her work bristled against expectations that great art must deal with big themes and ideas. Critics argued that the private, interior and personal realms were not the subjects of great art. They wanted to draw a thick line in the sand; the personal relegated to the category of artisanal home movies, folksy works not worthy of serious consideration. Her willingness to showcase images of sex, drugs and violence similarly brushed up against fragile sensibilities. As her work turned more outwardly political, Goldin began using her art to advocate about AIDS, and the frightening spark of the personal suddenly seemed dangerous to the establishment. Her radicalism was influential because it was real. After all, it was about the people she loved. 

Two parallel storylines run through All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. First, we have a chronological examination of the life experiences that shaped Goldin. We begin in her childhood home, a cold and alienated place. We learn of Goldin’s relationship with an older sister, Barbara, who committed suicide, and how that event shaped Goldin’s need to document things and stand up for what’s right. “She didn’t have the power to go with full-fledged rebellion like I did,” says Goldin at some point. Not just a statement of fact, this idea would become a kind of manifesto for Goldin.

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed Laura Poitras
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed by Laura Poitras

The second storyline examines Nan Goldin as she is now: an organizer aimed at exposing the Sackler family as beneficiaries of mass death and how they use their philanthropy to whitewash their name. Goldin was initially prescribed Oxycontin by a doctor, and like many people worldwide, her addiction spiralled out of control swiftly – almost killing her. Emerging from the darkness of that moment, Goldin founded the campaign Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN) to raise awareness, help save lives and remove the Sackler name from schools, galleries and museums across the world. 

In a world where artists lament the failures of art to create social change, Goldin’s crusade shows demonstrably that is not the case. Leveraging and risking her position within the art world while also using performance art as a tool for activism, we watch as PAIN slowly begins to turn the tide against the Sacklers. In a world with such little appreciation for art, we see, on the one hand, the power of art to change things and the underlying reasons why powerful people hide behind it as a means of exercising soft power. 

One of the documentary’s significant themes remains this push and pull between “autonomy and dependency,” an idea raised by Goldin. It applies to the battles of addiction and love; how we find ourselves bound by family and even unhappy relationships. How do we define ourselves in such a complex world without severing our ties with others? How much are we willing to sacrifice to imagine a better society? 

The final act of All the Beauty and the Bloodshed might be among the most devastating of the year. The personal and the political meet again, flooding the film with paradoxical and intense waves of emotion as multiple threads unravel and tie together neatly. The film is not just an excellent documentary but an incredibly nuanced and challenging work of art that unwinds the mechanizations of power and influence in relation to art. ■

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (directed by Laura Poitras)

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Dec. 2.


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