Against Silence: All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, directed by Laura Poitras

Laura Poitras’s documentary takes its darkly poetic name from a psychiatrist’s report about Barbara Holly Goldin, the older sister of the artist Nan Goldin and the person to whom the film is dedicated. Barbara committed suicide by lying down in front of an oncoming train in 1965 at the age of 18. She had had a troubled adolescence, characterized by consecutive stays in various foster homes and hospitals. In the assessment the doctor notes that Barbara’s view of the future anticipates “all the beauty and the bloodshed.” The evocative title links the film’s two main subjects: Nan Goldin’s life as an artist and her life as a social activist. Both subjects are inescapably involved with family— Nan’s birth family that includes her parents and her sister, and the artists, queens and bohemians in Boston and New York who became her family in life. “The relationships that have mattered most to me my whole life are probably my friends,” she says in the process of installing an exhibition of her work in the Marian Goodman Gallery in London. Looking at pictures of Joey and Greer and Sunny makes her realize that “I only escaped because of my friends.” Both “kinds” of family sections involve remembering and the two alternate throughout the film. We are always moving from activism to intimacy, from action to memory.

The film opens and closes with an action at The Met in New York by Nan and the members of P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), the organization she started in order to hold the Sacklers accountable. It is March 10, 2018, the day of the first protest; the closing scene is four years later, which is how long it took for her attack on the Sacklers and their company Purdue Pharma to be effective. In their first die-in they are lying in the Sackler Wing of The Met, surrounded by the Egyptian antiquities and architectural fragments donated to the museum by Arthur Sackler in 1978. At the end of the documentary, Nan and company come into the same gallery and look to the space above the entrance. What you see is only the faint impression of the name that had been there. Goldin’s work has ghosted the presence and the reputation of the family. By 2021, The Met and dozens of other major museums and universities around the world—including the Tate, the Louvre, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum, the Serpentine, the Guggenheim, London’s National Portrait Gallery and Columbia University—were no longer accepting Sackler money and had erased the family name from their gallery entrances and walls and education centres.

Goldin is such a compelling subject that it is easy to overlook how remarkable a film All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is, both in its structure and detail. Laura Poitras’s ability to weave archival footage into her own sequences is especially skillful, as is her picture sense. She recognizes the impact of small moments like moving in full frame when Megan Kapler, a member of P.A.I.N., holds Nan’s hand in support while she is reading her victim impact testimony to three members of the Sackler family during an online bankruptcy hearing. Her close-up shots of the ubiquitous pill bottles, floating in decorative pools inside the world’s great museums, and the tumbling fall of counterfeit Sackler pill labels from the upper rings of the Guggenheim Museum in 2021 make for artful politics. In the pool in The Met’s Temple of Dendur, P.A.I.N. tossed 1000 bottles with Purdue Pharma fake prescriptions, noting on the label that the side effect is death.

Taking her cue from Nan’s slideshows, Poitras uses music throughout the documentary with a conductor’s precision, so you hear Klaus Nomi singing Henry Purcell’s “The Cold Song,” Nico’s “Sunday Morning” with the Velvet Underground, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins threatening the viewer with “I Put a Spell on You,” Bush Tetras punking through “You Can’t Be Funky” and, under the streaming end credits, Lucinda Williams’s “Unsuffer Me.” The lyrics are perfect; one verse asks to “set me free / Come fill me up / With ecstasy” and the naming verse of the song touches on the name of the film as well; “Unsuffer me / Take away the pain / Unbruise unbloody / Wash away the stain.”

Poitras also knows when not to use music. Goldin’s speaking voice is so rich, variously assured and vulnerable, enraged and persuasive, that there are times when all the film needs is to hear her speak. What Poitras leaves out is as effective as what she puts in. She is quietly present in the film, in one shot she stands behind her camera—but mostly we hear her asking simple questions that land quietly and explode into an answer. When Nan is recounting her own troubled adolescent years, she says, “I’d been thrown out of every house where I’d ever lived—home, foster family … I made an art out of it.” Poitras gently asks, “Okay, why were you with foster parents?” and the answer is shocking. “Because a psychiatrist said that if I stayed in the house the same thing would happen with me that happened with Barbara, so my parents sent me to the Jewish Adoption Agency on Beacon Hill.”

The way it addresses silence is the documentary’s most richly developed and moving idea. Nan introduces it in talking about her sister and the way she was treated by her parents, “My mother insisted that Barbara speak in full sentences from the age of one and so she stopped talking for a year and a half. That was the first act of rebellion by my sister.” In contrast, Barbara has a caring relationship with her younger sister. “She trusted me with all her secrets,” Nan says, and “made me aware at a very young age of the banality and deadening grip of suburbia.” The effect of that deadening grip on Barbara was tragic. “My parents took away her credibility and silenced her by declaring her mentally ill,” Nan says, and the acceptance of silence and the truth it withholds becomes a shaping condition in the way Nan deals with the world. She was suffering from crippling shyness and didn’t speak at all for the first six months in the Hippie Free School where she ended up. “I think my sister’s suicide had silenced me,” she says.

Her salvation was friendship and photography. All the students were given cameras and Nan remembers that she was attracted to the medium more than anyone else at the school, “It was the only language I spoke at the time. Suddenly I had a personality and it gave me a voice. Photography was a way to walk through fear. It gave me a reason to be there.” At the same time, she met David Armstrong, who told her she was still speaking in a whisper, and their friendship lasted until he died in 2014. She asked him if he was gay; he named her Nan and they liberated one another. “He was the eye of my storm,” she says. When she moved in with David and his boyfriend, it was the opening of a whole world. “My roommates were running away from America and they found each other,” she says. “They didn’t think they were pioneers or rebels, they just were. It was about living out what they needed to live out in spite of the reaction from the outside world.” The image we see when Nan describes this new world is Picnic on the Esplanade, 1973, in Boston, an image that would end up in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, Nan Goldin’s landmark book published in 1986 by Aperture. It was a book that not only changed her life but changed photography. One of the advantages All the Beauty and the Bloodshed has is that in its telling the story of Nan’s life, we get to see tantalizing excerpts from her iconic works, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, 1983–2022, The Other Side, 1992–2021, and Memory Lost, 2019–2021. The images, despite their familiarity, get better and better with time.

One way the film deals with silence is to be loud. It gives voice to so many people in so many contexts, Nan reading the Artforum article that announced her declaration of war on the Sacklers; David Wojnarowicz reading from his art letter attacking Cardinal O’Connor as “a fat cannibal in a black skirt,” one of the artworks in “Witness: Against Our Vanishing” at the Artists Space Gallery in 1990 exhibition curated by Nan as a protest against America’s murderous indifference to the AIDS crisis. Public demonstrations by their very nature are noisy and so the mechanism of calland- response was a part of every action involving Nan and the members of P.A.I.N.

The section of the film that deals with the Reagan presidency is one of many places that reminds us how contentious and courageous Goldin’s life has been. At one point in describing the violent relationship she had with Brian, her boyfriend, she ironically comments that she was good at fighting. It is a case of recognizing a general application for a particular tendency. When she focuses on situations that affect her friends and the larger communities of which she has been a part, she is ferocious and uncompromising. “I hate the Sacklers,” she says in a P.A.I.N. meeting, and announces that “all these institutions have to stop taking money from these corrupt evil bastards.”

There are only two moments in her candid life-telling when Nan almost loses her composure, and each deals with one of her families. As Cookie Mueller loses her voice and gets progressively sicker from AIDS, Sharon Niesp, an actress and singer, moves back to care for her. She had met Cookie and her young son, Max, in Provincetown in the mid-’70s, the two women fell in love, and when Sharon saw that Cookie’s pumps were held together by safety pins she decided that “I’m going to take care of these people.” That’s what she is doing in Sharon with Cookie on the Bed in Provincetown in September 1989 and when Nan sees her picture, her voice cracks, “To me, this is the meaning of love.”

The second hesitation is more pronounced. Nan has gone through all her sister’s medical records (her father sent them without reading them) and they have caused her to think about the common shape of her and Barbara’s lives. “I wanted to know but I didn’t want to know,” she says and then comes to a realization about what her sister needed. “I just knew how hard it was for her to be alive. She wanted a home so badly. If she had found people, if she had been loved, she would have survived.” It’s in that lifesaving discovery that their lives are different.

The end of the film is her reckoning with the meaning of her sister’s life and death. “I think the story is an important story and not just for me but for society. It is a story about conformity and denial and also about the stigma around things that are kept secret and that destroy people. My sister was a victim of all that but she knew how to fight back,” she says. We see a colour snapshot of Barbara standing in the front entrance of her home. She is dressed in a red tartan skirt and a form-hugging sweater and her black, glossy hair is shining. “Her rebellion was the starting point for my own. She showed me the way,” Nan says, and then stops. “Let’s turn off for a minute.” This is the only time in the entire documentary where she goes silent. It is devastating because we recognize that there are no secrets left.

When the police came to the Goldin home to tell her parents that Barbara had committed suicide, her mother’s reaction was, “Tell the children it was an accident. My interpretation from that minute was denial, she didn’t want to know the truth. That’s when it clicked.” From that point on Nan decided there would be no secrets. That decision explains her admission about working as a prostitute and it makes understandable her going into specific detail about the ritual of preparation her sister performs as she waits for the suiciding train. Nan does the opposite of what her mother did; her ritual is one of truth-telling. “I mean, that’s the problem. You grow up being told that didn’t happen, you didn’t see that, you didn’t hear that. And how do you believe yourself? How do you continue to trust yourself? And how do you tell the world that you did experience that? That you did hear that?” Her questions all lead towards the same singular response, “So that’s the reason I take pictures.” ❚