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Nan Goldin, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed still
Courtesy of Altitude

Protest shouldn’t be polite: inside Nan Goldin’s fight against the Sacklers

Laura Poitras’ new film, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, takes us behind the scenes of the artist’s campaign for justice in the opioid crisis – here, the director tells us how Goldin laid the blueprint for future activism

In February 2019, Nan Goldin stood in the lobby of New York’s Guggenheim Museum on a busy Saturday evening, as prescriptions for OxyContin rained down from the upper floors like a flurry of snow. Around her, members of her activist group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) staged a die-in and hung red banners from the balconies. “400,000 DEAD,” they read. “SHAME ON SACKLER. 200 DEAD EACH DAY. TAKE DOWN THEIR NAME.”

Cut to May 2022: the Guggenheim officially announced that its walls would no longer bear the name of the Sackler family, founders of the OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma, which stands accused of fanning the flames of the opioid crisis for its own financial gain. The same week, the National Gallery in London ended its relationship with the Sacklers; months earlier, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Tate cut ties.

It’s no coincidence that many of the world’s biggest art institutions decided to ditch the drug-pushing donors in quick succession. Nan Goldin and P.A.I.N. have staged protests at all of the galleries mentioned above – many of which count the photographer’s work among their collections – since founding her public campaign against the Sacklers in 2017, generating waves of public outrage. The artist’s position in the opioid crisis justice movement is so prominent, in fact, that she was called upon to testify against Purdue Pharma at the landmark 2020 hearing that would result in a staggering $6 billion settlement.

Goldin had already begun her campaign when Laura Poitras – the Pulitzer-winning filmmaker whose films include the 2015 Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour – began documenting her fight. “I just thought it was so important that an artist in her position was using her influence and power to call attention to something that's been a crisis in the US for decades,” Poitras tells Dazed. The result of their collaboration is a feature-length documentary, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, which will be released in cinemas across the UK and Ireland from January 27, 2023.

The film offers a detailed look inside P.A.I.N., right through from the group’s foundation, to its most notable actions, to the bittersweet resolution reached by the courts (while Purdue Pharma eventually plead guilty to criminal charges over its marketing of opioids, the family owners escaped without charges). Unlike most reporting about the campaign, however, it also offers a more personal perspective. In scenes set against a backdrop of Goldin’s artistic slideshows, the artist provides commentary on her own life, including the struggles with opioid addiction that inspired her political action. Elsewhere, members of P.A.I.N. – many of whom have lost people close to them due to opioid addiction – share tear-jerking testimonies.

Below, Laura Poitras tells us what it was like to document their emotional campaign in real time, and how Nan Goldin’s actions in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed might be used as a blueprint for future activism.

What inspired you to dig deeper into the opioid crisis, and Nan Goldin’s personal story specifically?

Laura Poitras: There’s been a lot of reporting on the opioid crisis, but a lot of it’s been focusing on the company, Purdue Pharma, and not so much on the Sacklers. The government should have brought charges against the family decades ago. There’s a sort of collapse of government, politics, the legal system, and then you have people in cultural spaces trying to push for accountability. 

I knew Nan was doing these actions, and we happened to have a meeting, and she told me that she was working on a film, and I was really excited. I ultimately asked if they were looking for a director. I’m interested in political and social issues, usually critiques of power, usually about the US, but they’re usually told through individuals. So it’s kind of similar to past films I’ve made in that sense: an individual taking on a fight. I’m drawn to those stories.

It was fascinating, because when I started filming the meetings were still happening, and I could film them in real time, and watch this small group of people who really had an enormous impact in damaging the reputation of the Sackler family. Nan will be the first to say that [the Sacklers] got away with it, none of them have been charged, they didn’t have to file for bankruptcy. So, on the one hand, it’s a story about absolute impunity, that the rich can create their own system of justice that is above the law, and yet there were real consequences because of what Nan and P.A.I.N. did.

There’s obviously a lot of anger and sadness in the film, but also a lot of joy and community within P.A.I.N. Can you talk about capturing those intimate behind-the-scenes moments?

Laura Poitras: One of the producers on the film is Howard Gertler, who made a film called How to Survive a Plague, which was about the Aids crisis. They uncovered this amazing archival footage about these meetings, and [that was] one of the things I wanted to do. I love the behind-the-scenes meetings, how the ideas came about, and that it’s such a tiny group of people taking on a powerful organisation with lots of resources. But maybe [the film] is also a bit of a blueprint for other activists who organise. 

There were certain ingredients that made it really work. One of the things I think is so amazing is that, after Ourdue filed for bankruptcy, and we went into COVID, it [became] very hard to do demonstrations in the same way. But then Nan and P.A.I.N. and [voluntary lawyer] Mike Quinn followed them into the court, so you have this lawyer who’s causing all kinds of havoc with the very highly paid legal team, and that’s pretty brilliant.

I wanted to highlight that. I do think that, although the film has a lot of tragedy and bloodshed – as the title says – there are also a lot of really inspiring insights into activism, into why we make art, into the power and importance of art.

“On the one hand, it’s a story about absolute impunity, that the rich can create their own system of justice that is above the law, and yet there were real consequences because of what Nan and P.A.I.N. did” – Laura Poitras

What was the atmosphere at the protests you filmed in person?

Laura Poitras: There are nerves, but it’s usually very well coordinated. P.A.I.N. and Nan are not protesting the staff at these museums, they’re protesting the leadership and the boards, so I think that they try to be very thoughtful. They’re not trying to be polite, they want to cause a ruckus, so there are tensions – the security guards are not quite sure what to do – but they’re always trying to liaise with the museums, to say, ‘This is what we’re doing, it’s going to be over in this amount of time, and we’ll pick up the bottles and pieces of paper after’.

What’s interesting is watching the public, because the public is trying to figure out what’s going on, and in many cases joining in. That’s what was so amazing about the Guggenheim, that this whole chorus emerged. From the outside, you think, ‘Oh my god, the museum was filled with activists’, but they just joined in. What P.A.I.N. was very good at doing was both actions that engaged the museum-goers, and really spectacular actions that got a lot of press attention. I think without Nan and P.A.I.N. the Sackler name would still be at the V&A, it would still be at the Met, it would still be at the Guggenheim. That’s really shocking, given what’s known about their role in the overdose crisis.

Activist groups such as Just Stop Oil have similarly taken aim at global art galleries in recent weeks – why do you think they’re such a flashpoint for political protests?

Laura Poitras: Eyal Weizman [of Forensic Architecture, research group that has worked with Poitras in the past] did a talk at some point, and he said we’ve moved out of institutional critique, into cultural spaces being a place where dissent can be articulated. I think that has a lot to do with the failing of the power structures. It’s a place where people feel like they can reach people.

“I don’t think protest should ever be polite, if you’re trying to create change” – Laura Poitras

Protesters are also taking aim at the complicity of the galleries, via giving their donors credibility.

Laura Poitras: Right. The US is sort of unique, it has its whole philanthropic system of supporting the arts, which is maybe different to parts of Europe that have more government support. But yeah, there’s a lot of whitewashing and money laundering, because you have this money that’s accrued through this totally reprehensible profiting off of people’s suffering, like Purdue Pharma. Then you give these gifts to cultural institutions, which provide tax write-offs, and you get your name, you get invited to these parties. 

It’s a whitewashing of dirty money that’s happening, and you see it over and over again. Part of the reason the museums were slow to respond to Nan and P.A.I.N.’s demands to stop taking money, to take down the name, is that they’re worried about other people on their boards. It’s a bit of a crisis, I think. But these are really important questions that are being asked, and it’s unfortunate that it has to be the artist, or staff of museums, that are pushing for accountability.

What do you make of the public backlash against protests targeting art galleries?

Laura Poitras: I don’t think protest should ever be polite, if you’re trying to create change. The climate crisis is existential, so I’m not going to judge people in terms of their tactics. What was unique about Nan and P.A.I.N. is that Nan approached it as an artist who’s been collected by the museums, so she has a lot of influence within the institutions, and she has her own personal experience of being addicted to OxyContin. She was in a unique position to use her power.

“I think without Nan and P.A.I.N. the Sackler name would still be at the V&A, it would still be at the Met, it would still be at the Guggenheim. That’s really shocking, given what’s known about their role in the overdose crisis” – Laura Poitras

How did it feel to sit down and talk to Nan so intimately about her addiction, and memories that she herself says were really difficult to revisit?

Laura Poitras: It was super, super intense. Nan does it in her work, too, she’s very unfiltered, and she makes herself very vulnerable. It’s painful. I just approached it, every step of the way, like a complete collaboration. She says about her photographs that she wants people to be proud of being in the work. I think it was important that this film embodies that. We did audio interviews, and I was very emotionally moved by how she speaks about her life and these issues, and the importance of it.

I don’t consider this a biopic, I consider it a portrait. I wanted to avoid certain conventions. My work is about shining a light onto larger social structures, and Nan is doing something very similar. When she talks about things, it’s to destigmatise; like, talking about being battered allows others who have experienced something similar to see themselves reflected, and hopeful destigmatises issues. What Nan and P.A.I.N. were saying was that the shame and the stigma belongs to the Sackler family.

What would you like people to take away from the film, that they might not have taken from traditional coverage of the protests?

Laura Poitras: I hope that they think about their lives a little differently, both on a very personal, intimate level, and then how they engage politically. I felt profoundly moved and inspired by what P.A.I.N. was able to do, and by Nan’s artworks. Hopefully, people come away with that.

The reason that [Nan] was willing to talk about some very personal, intimate things is the importance of destigmatising. That’s a really important goal in the film. Also, to [convey] the power and importance of art. People like Nan or David Wojnarowicz used their incredible skills to speak about the failures of society. That’s so important. I think society needs those voices.

ALL THE BEAUTY AND THE BLOODSHED will be in cinemas across the UK & Ireland on 27 January. Visit for more information.