A customer expects impeccable dishes from an elegant restaurant: exquisite and beautifully prepared delicacies, in an atmosphere of comfort. Strange as it may seem today, this is where filmmaker Laura Poitras began her career. Although, perhaps, as a young chef in the most exclusive restaurants in San Francisco, the future director also gained some knowledge of how her creations could cause someone to choke them up. Because ever since she discovered the San Francisco Art Institute and, from there, cinema, she has devoted herself to making films that are always far from digestible for those in power, be they politicians or tycoons.
“I hope that [the film] brings trouble,” Poitras laughed during an interview with two journalists at the Venice Film Festival last September. It is quite likely that All the Beauty and the Bloodshed will do just that. But the movie, which opens on March 10 in theaters and then will be available on Filmin, also gave Poitras an almost unprecedented result: it became only the second documentary in history to win the Golden Lion, following in the footsteps of Gianfranco Rosi’s Sacro GRA, which won Venice’s top prize in 2013. On Sunday, Poitras’ film will be in the running for an Oscar in the best documentary feature category.
If All the Beauty and the Bloodshed takes the stuatuette it will be Poitras’ second Academy Award after she won in the same category for her 2015 movie Citizenfour, a portrait of former analyst Edward Snowden and his fight to lift the lid on a program of global government surveillance of US citizens. “I do take pleasure in putting some pressure back on, you know, for instance, a billionaire family that is responsible for such death, or the US government that’s responsible for a global empire that’s responsible for unspeakable violence,” she said.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed falls in the first category: the documentary recounts the struggle of a group of activists against the Sackler family, who they accuse of causing 400,000 opiate drug overdose deaths in the US alone. The Sacklers made billions from their business, a conclusion also reached in the book Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe. In addition to secrets and injustices, Poitras’ films generally feature a central character who serves as a common thread. In Citizenfour, that was Snowden. In All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, this central character is the famous photographer, Nan Goldin. Heroes? “People are defined by their actions, people do heroic things,” says Poitras.
“I’ve known Nan since the 1980s. We were meeting about another situation in the art world. And in the process of that, she said that she had been documenting her movement. And then about a year later we met and I said ‘anything you need, you know, anything I can do to help.’” Poitras recalls. “And she said: ‘Well, we’re looking for filmmakers to join us.’ And so that’s how I got involved.” And so an alliance was born between warriors, two Davids who were more than used to taking down Goliath. Poitras began to film: on the one hand the efforts of Goldin and her organization, P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), to denounce the Sacklers, who were at the time best-known as philanthropists and who had plaques in the corridors of the Louvre, the Tate and the Metropolitan to commemorate their vast donations. On the other were long an increasingly intimate conversations between the director and the photographer, who delved into her memories.
Surely, in San Francisco’s most sought-after kitchens, taste was not enough: the aesthetics had to dazzle as well. And in her latest film, Poitras seeks to blend powerful aromas with a visual aspect to match. Hence, the movie offers scenes very consistent with its title: there are snapshots that made Goldin one of the most renowned photographers in the world, a symbol of the avant-garde, of the New York of the seventies and eighties, of the fight against patriarchy and of independent creation. But the documentary also reveals in her own words all the wounds of a woman who lost a sister and many of her friends to AIDS and opiate addiction. She herself became hooked on the drug OxyContin, produced by Purdue Pharma, owned by the Sacklers.
“A small group of people sitting around in a living room planning how to take down a powerful billionaire family that are responsible for so many deaths : it seemed to me that there was a movie there. For me, these are the ingredients of cinema. And what she did was really risky. Your life can be seriously impacted when you have an army of lawyers coming after you and you know these guys have private investigators,” stresses the director. Even so, P.A.I.N. has succeeded in having several plaques removed, in having some centers refuse donations from the Sacklers and in questioning the way the family is viewed. In other words, victory, at least in part, another aspect that prompted Poitras to make the movie. Although the director herself wrote an article in The Guardian a few days ago to lament that in the main battle there is hardly any progress: “Today, as the overdose crisis takes the lives of more than 100,000 Americans each year, the question of how these Sackler family members have evaded criminal accountability is not only one of retrospective justice, but also of prevention.”
In her article, Poitras cites Santiago Mitre’s Argentina,1985, an Oscar contender for best international film, as an example of the courage and risks of prosecuting someone as powerful as the military junta of the 1970s dictatorship. “A society that does not confront its crimes is condemned to repeat them, and to reward those who committed them.” For this reason, among others, the director insists on going against the grain. It later emerged that, because of Citizenfour, the CIA tried to have Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald labeled as “information brokers” and “agents of a foreign power.” They didn’t manage it, but they tried. “And that was under Obama.” The filmmaker, in fact, recalls that she prepared a Plan B in case she ended up facing charges over the film and she moved to Berlin, where she felt further away from the reach of the US government.
To this day, she suspects that she is still under a watchlist by the executive: “I don’t think they will forget the fact that a documentary filmmaker exposed the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance program.” This did not prevent her, however, from accusing Philip R. Sellinger, the prosecutor in charge of the PurduePharma case, of having failed to “indict a single executive” of the company, as she wrote in her article for The Guardian. Or to point out that her movie is also about the failure of US society to care for its people and give them even the most minimal healthcare protection. Or lamenting journalism’s lack of coverage of the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan and its “dramatic consequences,” subjects she addresses in the films The Oath and My Country, My Country.
Finally, Poitras points even higher: “One of the most horrifying images of the Venice Film Festival was Hillary Clinton walking down the red carpet. Now she’s got a production company to finance documentaries. I’m not happy. She is not welcome. If she wants to contribute to the non-fiction and journalism world, let her release the torture reports that she and others in the US government concealed.”
Poitras vindicates and promotes other types of films: Field of Vision, the production company she co-founded, supports documentary filmmakers from all over the world, especially in underrepresented areas and communities. Or Descendant, Margaret Brown’s film about the quest for justice by the heirs of a group of slaves, which she quotes in conversation. “It’s not only the stories that are important, but also who tells them. We have to fight for all the creative freedom and independence for creators and create precedents so that contracts are better for other filmmakers, and so that stories are really told by the author and not coming from the funder.” Creators should be free to use any ingredients they want, even if these are not to some people’s liking. In fact, it’s better that way.
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