Although Laura Poitras has been very active in recent years, his last feature film was ‘Risk’, a critical portrait of the figure of Julian Assange and who sought to boycott the film in multiple ways; their works have been overshadowed by the success of the stupendous and Oscar-winning ‘Citizenfour’a true espionage thriller that had Edward Snowden as the protagonist. That was until now, when Poitras has returned in style with ‘Beauty and pain’brand new winner of the Golden Lion at the 79th Venice Festival and Oscar nominee for best documentary film.
‘Beauty and pain’ has two aspects. On the one hand, it’s a political feature filmwhich exposes the total impunity that the Sackler family, owners of pharmaceutical companies, has had (and has) Purdue Pharma and Mundipharma and those who are among those responsible for the strong health crisis in the United States with the opioid epidemic that the country suffers and that has taken the life of more than 600,000 people in the last decade.
A scandal that Poitras denounces through the PAIN association (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), founded in 2017 by artist and photographer Nan Goldin, who was addicted to OxyContin after a medical operation and suffered an overdose of fentanyl (another of the drugs that has caused this crisis) that almost led to his death. The filmmaker portrays Goldin’s strength as an activist, who took her fight against the Sackler clan personallyespecially when she is considered one of the essential storytellers of the New York counterculture scene in the 70s and 80s, an artistic icon that has given her the power to publicly denounce how the Sacklers sought to silence any controversy through artistic donations to museums, theaters of exhibitions and even to the press through investment in advertising.
An essential feature film on art as a form of political dissidence
Poitras, from that aspect, show the power of activism with art, with small victories such as important art galleries such as the MET, the Louvre or the Guggenheim rejecting donations from the Sackler family, even removing his last name from the exhibition rooms in which he had contributed to pay for his silence. also shows how the power of activism and the fact that various associations came together managed to mobilize the media and public opinion and it was achieved that Purdue Pharma declared bankruptcy, in addition to reaching an agreement with the victims and their families to give more than six billion dollars in an out-of-court agreement by which the family achieved full impunity.
That’s ‘The Beauty and the Pain’ on the one hand. For the other, is a personal feature film with which Poitras paints a portrait of Goldin’s life and careershowing from his childhood and how he experienced the drama of seeing how his parents admitted his sister Barbara to a psychiatric hospital, who ended up committing suicide when she was a teenager. It also explores other parts of her life such as drug use or something that Goldin had not spoken about publicly, from her time as a prostitute. Also how the abusive relationship she lived with one of her boyfriends led to a photographic exhibition in which Goldin showed the bruises and other scars left by her ex-partner, an advanced form of artistic denunciation of sexist violence.
Added to this is the fact that Poitras, dividing the film into seven episodes, also narrates the Goldin’s artistic achievements, executing several slideshow scenes, such as Goldin’s 1985 exhibit titled ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’. Showing Goldin as an essential figure in the awakening of the fight for LGBT rights, as well as the start of the AIDS epidemic and how it took an entire generation and how art and photography made part of that generation stay in some form. Parallels are also shown of how pharmaceutical companies did nothing to save those lives, how they waited almost a decade to start producing drugs that would prevent HIV from being deadly, and how now they have created a good handful of dependents on opioids.
A powerful documentary, in which you see a hand in hand between Poitras and Goldin, which achieves a certain balance, being half denouncement cinema and half biographical documentary. An essential film to get to know in depth a unique artist and an association that continues to fight against this epidemic that, in 2021, reached its record, taking 80,411 lives. Without a doubt, one of the feature films of the year.
The best: The portrait of Goldin’s life and work is fascinating.
Worst: By converging two aspects, they produce the feeling that something is left halfway in their complaint about opioids.