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Director Laura Poitras on her new documentary 'All the Beauty and the Bloodshed'

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The Sackler family name greeted visitors in museums across the world at the height of the opioid crisis. Photographer Nan Goldin led the fight against their influence in the art world, and her campaign is the focus of the new documentary "All The Beauty And The Bloodshed."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "ALL THE BEAUTY AND THE BLOODSHED")

NAN GOLDIN: My anger at the Sackler family, it's personal. When you think of the profit off people's pain, you can only be furious.

MCCAMMON: But Director Laura Poitras goes beyond capturing Nan the activist. We see Nan the artist, her family, life on the margins in New York City, interwoven with her slideshows and candid reflections. The film is in theaters now, and Poitras, whose work also includes the award-winning documentary "Citizenfour," joins me now. Thanks so much for being here.

LAURA POITRAS: It's great to be here with you, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: Your work up until this point has shined a light on whistleblowers and government surveillance - the case of Edward Snowden in "Citizenfour," for example. But this film is far more intimate. What inspired you to document Nan Goldin's life in this way?

POITRAS: Well, I was initially inspired by the activism that she was doing. And her organization, Pain Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, was staging these big protests inside museums. And, you know, to have an artist of her stature, of her influence, using that power in the art world to call for accountability, I was excited about it. And it kind of sort of aligned itself with my previous films - individuals who were taking on powerful forces. But then, you're right; it is more - has an intimacy that maybe my other films don't have. So it's sort of moving in a different direction, and that's, I think, largely to do with the collaboration with Nan.

MCCAMMON: And the documentary weaves all of these different threads together. You learn about Nan's family, her early life, her friends sort of in her young adult years, obviously her photography and activism against the Sacklers. Why was it so important for you to document this relationship between her life, her art and her activism?

POITRAS: Yeah, I mean, I thought it was really important to understand sort of the origins maybe of her work and her sort of lifelong fight against authority and power and where did it come from - I was interested in that. And then, as a portrait of an artist, I felt like that was, you know, essential. And to bring her work into the film was, you know - it's kind of a no-brainer. You know, my real question always was, like, what can I contribute?

MCCAMMON: Yeah, you've mentioned that you worked closely with Nan on this film, and, really, she was a collaborator on it. How did you approach the filmmaking process, you know, working with someone with so much expertise in this area?

POITRAS: You know, there's so much of the - the story is about her personal life, and that's a truth that only she knows. And we did these very intimate interviews. They were recorded over the course of a year and a half in her living room, the same living room where she was also doing her activism. And there was just a real intimacy there. That reminded me - like, the intimacy of her voice and how she talked about her life and her artwork reminded me very much of her photographs - very raw, deeply personal and moving.

MCCAMMON: To a certain extent, this film is really about two epidemics - opioids, of course, but also HIV/AIDS, which is something that took the lives of many of Nan's friends in the art world in New York in the '80s and '90s. And Nan used photography to bring awareness to the HIV/AIDS crisis. In your film, that crisis is juxtaposed with her anti-Sackler activism. What connection do you see between those two crises?

POITRAS: Yeah, I mean, it's a key element of the film. We sort of build this intersection between these historical moments, the AIDS crisis and this exhibition that Nan had organized that caused this controversy and her current activism, which is, as she says, very largely inspired by the work of ACT UP. I hope the film is a societal critique, that it's - it sort of looks at a society that, you know, suffers from amnesia, that we also suffer from not taking care of people who are vulnerable, and that we often reward the wrong things, you know?

MCCAMMON: It also feels like a big theme is stigma.

POITRAS: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, Nan's - talks about a lot of very intimate things in the film. And there's this - I think, a goal that she has and that her organization has and that, I think, also the film, is to shift where we put something like shame - right? - that shame belongs on the Sackler family and for the, you know, reckless promotion of OxyContin for decades.

MCCAMMON: The Sackler family has enormous power, billions of dollars, deep ties to the most powerful cultural institutions in America. Your film looks at a different kind of power that Nan sort of wields as one person. Tell us what you saw in her. How would you describe her power?

POITRAS: Yeah. You know, again, that's really what motivated me. Like, it was the fact that she was going to leverage the power that she has in museums. I mean, she's - her work is being collected by all the museums she's protesting, right? So she's definitely going after and using her influence in these spaces. And I think, you know, it's something that she felt absolutely just compelled to do, that she had to do something. And she had - you know, she was speaking from a lot of authority, both as an artist whose work is exhibited and collected by these museums and also as somebody who has herself been through addiction to OxyContin.

MCCAMMON: As you were making this film, did you think that this effort would work? Did you think Nan would be able to convince these museums and institutions to actually back away from all of that Sackler money?

POITRAS: I think in the early months of their demonstrations, I think it was really uncertain. I mean, the museums didn't - they tried to pretend it wasn't happening. None of them responded. And so it really took a good year and a half before there was movement. And so, yeah, I don't think it was, in any way, a foregone conclusion.

MCCAMMON: You know, there was a time when it seemed very likely that the Sackler family would pay billions of dollars, which is a small fraction of their fortune, and manage to keep their reputation as generous philanthropists. What do you think that their long-term legacy will be?

POITRAS: On one hand, you know, what's happened is very much - very American story about impunity, right? On the other hand, you know, I think their name definitely has been shamed. And I don't know that they're going to get that reputation back. And that is, you know, largely the work of pain shedding a light on this, you know, along with the work of a lot of investigative journalists who spent decades trying to raise the alarm about what was happening.

MCCAMMON: That's Laura Poitras, director of the new documentary "All The Beauty And The Bloodshed." It's in theaters now. Thank you so much for talking with us.

POITRAS: Oh, thank you.

MCCAMMON: And we should note, while members of the Sackler family say they sincerely regret the role of OxyContin in the opioid crisis, they deny any wrongdoing. Their company, Purdue Pharma, has twice admitted criminal activity tied to OxyContin sales, but the Sacklers themselves have never faced criminal charges.

(SOUNDBITE OF JONNY GREENWOOD'S "TOKI NO SENREI WO UKETEINAI MONO WO YOMUNA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.