Laura Poitras: Nan Goldin, Opioids and Me

Nan Goldin is one of the most famous photographers in the world

Laura Poitras: Nan Goldin, Opioids and Me

Nan Goldin is one of the most famous photographers in the world. His unvarnished New York images of drag queens and stoned, his bruised-faced self-portraits (after a regular beating by a lover intent on blinding her), his famous Ballad of Sexual Addiction (1986) belong to the collections of the greatest museums, from the Tate in London to the Guggenheim in New York. So when, in 2017, this revered artist started protesting in museums against the Sacklers (patrons whose fortunes stem from the horribly addictive opioid OxyContin), "it was a shock," says American documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, whose new film, the magnificent All the Beauty and the Spilled Blood (in theaters), is dedicated to the photographer. “Nan is a major artist and suddenly she was asking them to choose: the Sacklers and their money or her and her work. The craziest thing is that she won her fight. »

Le Point: Why were you interested in Nan Goldin's engagement against the Sackler family?

Laura Poitras: I made a film on the American army in Iraq (My Country my Country, 2006), another around Edward Snowden, global surveillance and illegal tapping orchestrated by the NSA: Citizenfour (2014) . A priori, the universe of Nan Goldin, who is an intimate artist, seems very far from my work. But the underlying theme is one of abuse of power… And, as far as the Sacklers are concerned, these are people who own a company, Purdue Pharma, and manufacture drugs. They created OxyContin at the end of the 1990s and marketed this drug by communicating the idea that it was not addictive... They even lobbied the government to prevent it from being classified as addictive, and developed sophisticated marketing and a reward system for physicians who prescribe as many as possible. All this when they knew perfectly well – all their communications show it – that OxyContin was making people addicted and dying from it. First on the side of Appalachia, in poor and rural states. And then everywhere in the United States. OxyContin plunged the country into a crisis that still lasts today, a real epidemic of overdoses, the deaths are counted in the hundreds of thousands. It is rare to see such cynicism, so evident to the naked eye.

All the beauty and bloodshed accompanies Nan Goldin, who herself suffered from OxyContin addiction, in her fight to have the Sackler name removed from a number of museums: with her collective called Pain, she designs actions as spectacular as they are aesthetic…

Yes, Nan is such an artist that everything she does is beautiful! At the Guggenheim, for example, she and her group really use space, this famous spiral, to rain down fake prescriptions. When their action begins, it is a moment of grace, the visitors are captivated. There is another moment in the film, the first sequence, where we see a "die-in", this time at the Metropolitan Museum. Nan and her companions are lying on the ground as if they were dead.

Which allows you to evoke Act Up and the activism of Nan Goldin in the 1980s…

Very quickly, I understood the strong link that exists in Nan Goldin's life between these two periods. I recorded her at home, in her living room in Brooklyn, without filming her. This allowed for very intimate conversations: she confided in her life, in her indignation at the time when all her loved ones were dying of AIDS without there being any public health action to help people… There has a very strong sequence in the film around David Wojnarowicz, who was a painter, photographer and writer, and photographer Peter Hujar. Nan was exposing them, highlighting them when they were really ostracized from society.

How did you realize that the core of your film would be a family secret?

For the film, I recorded long conversations with Nan Goldin in her living room in Brooklyn. There was no camera, just audio recording. I was sitting on the sofa, very close to Nan. The level of intimacy of these conversations grabbed me right away. I understood that we were going to go far. And, indeed, Nan told me about her sister Barbara, who is the subject of one of her major works: Sisters, Saints and Sibyls (2005). She was Nan's older sister, a mother figure for her because their mother couldn't be a mother… She was a rebellious young girl, who was locked up in institutions and committed suicide. Nan shot almost forty hours of film around her sister, she filmed her parents – I show a very moving, heartbreaking sequence, towards the end of the film – and she also consulted a lot of documents in the institutions where she had been placed. The phrase "All beauty and bloodshed" is hers.

What touches you in this story?

Because of this personal tragedy, Nan decided to reject the rules of society, and this ability to erase, to negate people who do not conform. It offers a counter-narrative to what society wants people to think. And she chose to leave a trace of everything she lived, of the people she loved… Proof that it existed when her sister had been erased from history by the denial of her parents. I learned a lot from Nan. She photographs people she has a relationship with – lovers, close friends, roommates… – and she empowers them. They can say "no, don't photograph me or show this photo". It's very nice to have this report about him.

At the same time, this equality is impossible in certain contexts, for example when you are doing Citizenfour…

Of course, since these were state secrets, I wasn't going to let Edward Snowden tell me what to show or not to show. The context determines these relationships. But all the same, in the film, there is a moment when he types a message. We don't see the image, but we hear the sound of his fingers on the keyboard… And he was afraid that special services could decode the content of his message simply from the sound. So I took his concern into account and mixed it with other sounds.

Looking back, how do you view the aftermath of Citizenfour and the Snowden revelations?

I wish the impact was stronger, the mass surveillance program just stopped, and the NSA disbanded! But I have to admit at least that people are much more aware of being watched since the Edward Snowden revelations. We no longer have such a naive use of the Internet and the telephone. Journalists don't work the same way anymore: they use coded software like Signal. That is a concrete impact.

What habits have you carried over from when you were under surveillance, after your films about Iraq and Snowden?

After joining Snowden in Hong Kong, I didn't have a phone at all for a long time. I thought to myself "if they want to spy on my movements, they'll have to hire someone to follow me, the old fashioned way". I no longer live in Berlin, where I moved to in 2012, when the pressure was very strong and I could no longer work peacefully in the United States. Today, I came back because the climate has relaxed… apparently. The government is still seeking the extradition of Julian Assange. My films have revealed the existence of war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I know that the state has a long memory. So I have an exit plan in case anyone ever takes an interest in me again. My work always amounts to questioning the power of the United States, the status of the American empire. I have been offered to deal with topics elsewhere, but it is not for me to do so, I am wary of the position of expatriate.. I am an American citizen, I must speak about what I know.

"All the Beauty and the Spilled Blood", in theaters.