'All the Beauty and the Bloodshed': Best documentary of the year calls for accountability in opioid crisis

As the opioid epidemic rages on across the U.S., impacting Canada as well, Oscar-winning director Laura Poitras is telling the story of renowned artist and activist Nan Goldin's journey to hold the Sackler family (owners of Purdue Pharma, makers of OxyContin) accountable for profiting off this crisis.

The film All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is a deeply personal and affecting documentary that shows how Goldin has used her influence in the art world to expose the Sackler family and shame museums taking money from the Purdue Pharma owners. It also blends Goldin's personal history and relationships as a way to set the stage for the artist's present-day activism.

“I was just really compelled that Nan was using her power in the art world to confront this really problematic issue of white washing of money in museums,” Poitras told Yahoo Canada. “She chose to leverage her unique position to just completely reject the status quo.”

“I was really inspired by not just the fact that she was using her power in the art world to confront the Sacklers, but that it was having this impact, and they were being so innovative about it, and how important that is to both document this case, but then maybe also show a little bit of a blueprint behind the scenes."

Nan Goldin in the bathroom with roommate Boston (Photo courtesy of Nan Goldin)
Nan Goldin in the bathroom with roommate Boston (Photo courtesy of Nan Goldin)

Who is Nan Goldin?

Visual artist Nan Goldin has created an impressive legacy, over more than 50 years, by beautifully and intimately documenting the lives of people often stigmatized in society, including herself and her friends. Her breakthrough work was a 1985 slideshow titled The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, which has been exhibited at famed institutions like the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Tate Modern in London.

In 2017, after revealing that she was recovering from an OxyContin addiction following an injury that led to her being prescribed the drug, Goldin embarked on her journey to fight against the people profiting from individuals suffering from opioid addiction. The Sacklers in particular have also been significant donors in the art world she inhabits.

Goldin connected with other activist and artists to create Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (P.A.I.N.), an organization advocating for harm reduction and overdose prevention, in addition to doing what they can to hold the billionaire pharmaceutical family accountable for their role in the crisis.

P.A.I.N. has organized several protests at internationally renowned museums that had accepted money from the Sacklers, including a die-in at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2018 where demonstrators threw mock pill bottles into the moat at the Temple of Dendur. Several museums, including the New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Louvre in Paris, have removed the Sackler name from their galleries.

WHITE PLAINS, WESTCHESTER, UNITED STATES - 2019/10/10: Artist and Harm Reduction Activist Nan Goldin.  Members of P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) and Truth Pharm staged a rally and die-in outside New Yorks Southern District Federal Court in White Plains, where Purdue Pharmaceuticals bankruptcy hearing is being held. Participants threw thousands of mock Oxy Dollars and prescription bottles of OxyContin while holding banners reading Shame On Sackler, 200 Dead Each Day and Claw Back Sackler $$, Fund Harm Reduction. (Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)
WHITE PLAINS, WESTCHESTER, UNITED STATES - 2019/10/10: Artist and Harm Reduction Activist Nan Goldin. Members of P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) and Truth Pharm staged a rally and die-in outside New Yorks Southern District Federal Court in White Plains, where Purdue Pharmaceuticals bankruptcy hearing is being held. Participants threw thousands of mock Oxy Dollars and prescription bottles of OxyContin while holding banners reading Shame On Sackler, 200 Dead Each Day and Claw Back Sackler $$, Fund Harm Reduction. (Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

'In the end, ultimately, they get away with it'

Purdue Pharma declared bankruptcy in 2020 and earlier this year, a US$6 billion settlement was agreed to, which granted members of the Sackler family immunity from future opioid lawsuits.

A core question in terms of this activism is, will the Sackler family ever, personally, be held accountable? Laura Poitras explained that while Nan Goldin was able to have some "victories" in tarnishing the family name, the "structural forces" that enable this to happen "haven't been touched."

“In the end, ultimately, they get away with it, right,” Poitras said. “They're held accountable in the cultural spaces, so their name has been shamed, thanks to Nan...and others, but they're not sitting in a courtroom right now, as they should be.”

“They've managed to sort of buy their way out of their problems. I think Nan has this idea of billionaire justice, they knew that people were dying, they knew that the drug was being overprescribed, and they sat back and they just said, how can we make more money here?...How can we get more doctors to prescribe more?... It is also still about impunity. It's still about, in the U.S., how a crisis of public health was sort of negotiated in some bankruptcy court.”

For those who watched Danny Strong's Hulu series Dopesick, starring Michael Keaton, Kaitlyn Dever, and with Michael Stuhlbarg playing Richard Sackler, former president and co-chairman of Purdue Pharma, the Sackler family had been top of mind.

As more episodes were released weekly in 2021, this story based on Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family's involvement in widespread opioid addiction in the U.S. was infuriating its audience. Many people were publicly expressing their disgust and outrage about the crisis.

But the public tends to fall into a trap of amnesia when issues aren't front-and-centre in their lives anymore. Something that angered us a year ago can go forgotten for some, or many, as new issues rise and as people involved aren't held accountable in the structures we have in place.

“This film, hopefully, is really fighting against amnesia,” Poitras said.

“There's also, I think, a tendency of amnesia to individualize, particularly around when people talk about drug use, ‘Oh it's an individual choice.’ I think it was really important for me in the film that we're kind of shifting the shame towards the Sacklers. They need to be ashamed of what they've done, this is not about hammering on the abusers.”

Self portrait with scratched back after sex, London 1978 (Photo courtesy of Nan Goldin)
Self portrait with scratched back after sex, London 1978 (Photo courtesy of Nan Goldin)

Looking at the past and the present

Aside from the specifics around the opioid crisis, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is a sort of dance between the past and the present, looking back at Nan Goldin's life and looking at her impactful art as commentary about her life and community. The documentary also taps into moments in Goldin's history that have been particularly affecting for the artist, from her childhood, to the AIDS crisis, right up to her opioid addiction.

"I wanted to juxtapose what's happening now with the overdose crisis, and what happened in the U.S. with the AIDS crisis,...and that Nan had lived both of these historical moments," Laura Poitras said. “Then, the sort of more personal came as I was working."

Some of the most personal moments in the film come when we learn about Goldin's sister, Barbara, who was in and out of mental health institutions as a teen and committed suicide in 1965 at the age of 19. A key art piece featured in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is Sisters, Saints, and Sibyls, a video installation from 2004 about Barbara.

"I hadn't seen Nan's piece about her sister when I started the film and she has this really extraordinary installation about her sister Barbara, which devastated me, it just completely blew me away," Poitras said.

The activism, Goldin's deeply personal life story and her art could be a lot to handle in one film, but Poitras expertly balances all these components, which she credits to her team of editors. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed really shows the interconnectedness of all these elements in a heartbreaking but also breathtaking way.

“This film is not going to create any structural change, unfortunately, films don't tend to do that, but hopefully, I think it reaches people in a profound way, and that is a change that is meaningful,” Poitras said.

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed has been released in Toronto, expanding to further markets on Dec. 9