Where life wounds, art and fellowship can heal, or at the very least, cauterize into the most expressive of scars. Photographer Nan Goldin knows this as much as anyone, her life’s journey from suburban captivity to outsider freedom, from Polaroid chronicler of her circle of intimates to consequential artist/activist, is all on moving, enriching display in Oscar-winning filmmaker Laura Poitras’ enthralling documentary, “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.”
If you’ve ever doubted how art, rage or action can make meaningful change, Goldin’s combination of all three fighting an opioid crisis that nearly killed her is exhilarating proof of the power of “screaming in the streets,” to borrow what the queer artist David Wojnarowicz — one of many close friends of Goldin’s whom the AIDS epidemic took — wryly described as a necessary ritual of the living in a time of too much death.
When Goldin, in recovery from her own scary OxyContin addiction, learned that the wealthy Sackler family, owners of the drug’s maker, Purdue Pharma, were all over her world as art benefactors, she created PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) as an ACTUP-inspired group aimed at advocating for more treatment funding from opioid profits, and shaming museums bearing the Sackler name into refusing the family’s reputation-washing money.
Starting in 2018, she spearheaded “die-ins” inside the Met and the Guggenheim, with flung pill bottles, coruscating banners (“400,000 DEAD”), shouts (“Sacklers lie, people die!”), and arrayed bodies signifying the drug’s deathly toll. The footage of these actions — the verité center of Poitras’ biographical portrait of Goldin — have a fierce glory, planned eruptions in elite spaces that, as we learn from the story threaded artfully throughout the documentary, speak to how important truth, community and unfettered expression have been across Goldin’s life.
Her spare, vivid, candid voice-over guides us through