'All the Beauty and the Bloodshed' chronicles Nan Goldin's career of art and activism
Poitras and Goldin's Oscar-nominated documentary, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, chronicles Goldin's work as a photographer, as well as her work as an activist. In the years since Goldin founded P.A.I.N., the group's protests have been a major factor in getting institutions like the Met, the Guggenheim and the Louvre to remove the Sackler name.
Other segments from the episode on February 9, 2023
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When my guest, Nan Goldin, started taking her photographs to galleries back in the late 1970s, the photos were considered too transgressive, too raw, too weird. But they were photos of her friends, people who were considered social outcasts like drag queens and other queer people and people in the underground art and music scene. She took pictures of them at parties, at home, alone in bed or having sex. She captured intimacy and despair. Over time, her work was acknowledged as groundbreaking and was added to the permanent collections of major museums, including the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Those were some of the museums she targeted when she led a campaign to get art institutions to take down the Sackler family name and stop accepting their money.
The Sacklers founded Purdue Pharma, the company infamous for manufacturing OxyContin and deceptively marketing it in ways that led to the opioid epidemic. The Sacklers made large philanthropic donations to many museums, often getting a wing or wings named after the family in return. To Goldin, it was a way of laundering blood money. She founded the group P.A.I.N., an acronym for Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, which led anti-Sackler die-ins and other protests at museums. Those protests were a major factor in getting institutions like the Met, the Guggenheim and the Louvre, which also showed her work, to remove the Sackler name, although the Sackler name remains on two of the nine galleries at the Met that bore the name.
Goldin became addicted to OxyContin after it was prescribed while she was recovering from surgery. The new Oscar-nominated documentary "All The Beauty And The Bloodshed" is about Goldman's anti-Sackler campaign and her life and work. It was directed by Laura Poitras, who is also with us. Poitras is best known for directing the documentaries "Risk," about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, and "Citizenfour," about Edward Snowden, who handed over classified NSA documents to Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald.
Nan Goldin, Laura Poitras, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's a really remarkable film. Congratulations on it. And congratulations on the Oscar nomination. So, Laura, let's start with you. After making films about war, the release of secret government documents, why did you want to make a film about Nan Goldin?
LAURA POITRAS: Well, you know, I have known and admired Nan's artwork for really so long, as long as I've been making films. And when she started doing these protests inside the museums, I was blown away by it. And she actually began the film. She started documenting the protests. And then we happened to have a chance meeting. And she'd been documenting it for over a year. And she told me that she was looking for other people to join the project. And that's how I got involved. And it was - for me, it was a no-brainer. I mean, I was just - somebody of her position in the art world using her power in this way to call for accountability, for me was, you know, very in line with my previous work.
GROSS: Nan, can you describe the protests at the Guggenheim and at the Met? Because they look like art pieces. I mean, they look like performance pieces.
NAN GOLDIN: Yeah, they're very performative and sexy. We were after sexy actions that the media would love. And the first one, we made a bottle with a fake prescription that said OxyContin on it, prescribed by Richard Sackler, side effect - death. And we threw a thousand of those bottles into the water around the Temple of Dendur, which was the Sacklers' jewel. And other museumgoers, even a child got involved and - we did a die-in. And then our signs were ripped down. And we left screaming, we'll be back. And the Guggenheim was the most beautiful. We threw prescriptions, fake prescriptions, that had quotes from Richard Sackler and about five different prescriptions saying things like, we have to hammer on the abusers. They're the culprits. And we're going to make a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition. So we saw it as a blizzard of prescriptions and that we were the people being buried. And we also did a die-in there. It was a really beautiful action.
GROSS: It was beautiful because, I mean, visually beautiful. You were - the people from your group, P.A.I.N., were on the upper levels of the atrium and started dropping these prescriptions into the center of the Guggenheim. And they kind of like floated down like snowflakes in a blizzard...
GROSS: ...Except more gentle than in a blizzard. But there were so many of them. It was really - it was quite pretty (laughter).
GOLDIN: Yeah, it was beautiful.
GROSS: So it really was like an art piece in an art museum protesting the Sackler family.
GOLDIN: But even though I'm an artist, I can't take credit that I design these actions. They were very, very collaborative with the group. One person would have an idea and then it would roll to the next person. And that's how we created these actions.
GROSS: Most of the people in your group, P.A.I.N., are younger than you. You, being a little older, lived through the AIDS epidemic, and you lost many friends in it. Did you learn things from the ACT UP group that protested the lack of medical attention and funding for AIDS research and the lack of government attention? Did you learn things from ACT UP's protest techniques?
GOLDIN: Yes, they were my model. I was present during ACT UP. I went to some of their actions and a few of their meetings. Unfortunately, I didn't get fully involved. But also, I was making my work, and a lot of it was about people who were living and dying from AIDS. And the people in ACT UP supported my work, unlike a lot of photography that was being done showing people as AIDS victims. The stigma for the AIDS phobia and the stigma was incredible for people living with AIDS. And so work that was positive was important. And I learned everything about doing performative actions and die-ins. And sometimes some of the older members of ACT UP that are still alive would come to meetings.
GROSS: Laura, as somebody who directed the film and didn't participate actively in the protests other than filming them, how much do you attribute the success of taking down the Sackler name from many major museums to the work of Nan Goldin and her group, P.A.I.N.?
POITRAS: Well, I mean, it absolutely wouldn't have happened without their work. And I think - and that's not just my opinion. I mean, there's - investigative journalists like Patrick Radden Keefe and Barry Meier, who've been reporting about the Sackler family and the scourge of OxyContin for so many years, and yet nothing was really happening in terms of accountability for the Sacklers themselves. And it really wasn't until Nan and P.A.I.N. started doing these actions that it sort of crystallized. And it became, you know, like untenable. And that name became, you know, associated with the kind of death toll that it has brought, that their drug has brought. So, yeah, it just - it simply - the name still would be there today. You would walk in - if Nan hadn't stood up, I'm confident that the Sackler name would still be on the museums.
GOLDIN: The other thing is we were - after that - thanks, Laura. And I think it's true. Later, during COVID, there was a bankruptcy case where the Sacklers had shed their company of all the money and put it offshore, like $10 million - $10 billion, excuse me. And the company went bankrupt. And we stepped into the bankruptcy case, a group of us - not P.A.I.N. It was called Oxy Justice, and it was myself and five parents who had lost their children to OxyContin overdoses. And we made a lot of noise in court. And I was also, like, informing people in the museums about the case and keeping them updated on that.
Also, right before the Met took down the name in November 2021, we wrote a letter, Laura and myself and another person, to the board talking about the necessity of taking down the name. And 77 of the greatest living artists signed it. It was incredible. And I think that had a lot of power in the board meetings.
GROSS: So as part of the bankruptcy process, legally, a federal judge required the Sackler family to listen to testimony from people who had either become addicted to OxyContin or who had loved ones who were, and some of them had lost their loved ones to overdoses. Nan, you were one of the people who testified directly to the Sacklers. This was over Zoom. But this was your opportunity to actually talk with them and address them directly. What message did you want to send them?
GOLDIN: It would have been my dream to have them in the room. Having it on Zoom wasn't as powerful. Some of the other people that testified were incredibly moving. I held back a little on the advice of a lawyer, and I wish I hadn't. But I called for criminal charges against them. They looked completely dead, both of them that were on camera, Theresa and David. They hardly blinked.
GROSS: You got addicted to oxy yourself after being prescribed it for surgery. I believe it was wrist surgery.
GROSS: And that led to using, like, many, many pills of oxy a day. And then, that led to fentanyl, and you nearly overdosed and died. I mean, you overdosed, but you didn't die.
GROSS: So just tell us a little bit how the oxy led to fentanyl.
GOLDIN: Fentanyl is in all the drug supply now, and it's moving the needle on the overdose crisis, too. Now there's about a million people who have died in America from overdose since 1999 - a million people. I got addicted very quickly to oxy after it was prescribed. And I upped my dose very quickly, and it took over my life. I became completely isolated. And at the end, I couldn't get oxy. And somebody sold me something that I thought was heroin, and it was fentanyl. But it - fentanyl is in all the drugs now.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are artist Nan Goldin, whose life and work are the subjects of the new Oscar-nominated documentary "All The Beauty And The Bloodshed." Also with us is the film's director, Laura Poitras. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO SONG, "ALL TOMORROW'S PARTIES")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with artist Nan Goldin, whose photographs are in museums around the world, and Laura Poitras, director of the new Oscar-nominated documentary "All The Beauty And The Bloodshed" about Goldin's life and work and her campaign to get museums and galleries to remove the Sackler name from their walls. That name was on the walls in acknowledgement of the family's major financial donations. The Sackler family owned Purdue Pharma, which manufactured OxyContin and marketed it with deceptive practices that led to the opioid epidemic.
Laura, directing this movie, this very powerful movie about a Nan's life, how would you describe what made Nan's photos groundbreaking?
POITRAS: Oh, wow. I mean, where do you even start? I mean, she's - I think the practice, the way that she worked - she documents her life, the people that she's deeply involved with. And there's a sort of relationship that, actually, you can see and you can feel in the images representing, you know - I mean, Nan and I would have these conversations. You know, I would use the word that people were sort of resisting mainstream America. And she was like, no, no, no, we just didn't care. Like, normative society was not interesting to us.
I think the representation of queer identity, queer sexuality, you know, it's just all groundbreaking. The way in which she redefined, I think, storytelling with images both within the frame, there's just this sense of mise en scene, the lighting, the sense of characters. You want to know people. You want to be there. And then, with the slideshows, how she juxtaposed the images with the music and her editing - you know, it's all so cinematic.
What's so also so amazing about Nan's work is that different people relate to it differently depending on what they bring to it. Some people will, you know, talk about, like, how it looks at the difficulty of, you know, relationships and gender - so many ways in which it's been groundbreaking for people. And, you know, people come up to me and say, you know, Nan helped me come out. They looked at her photographs, and it made them feel OK to say that they're queer.
GROSS: Nan, how would you describe how your photos were different from the other photography shows of the time and what made your work groundbreaking?
GOLDIN: I think the wrong things are kept secret. So the fact that I put out my work - it was not accepted as art at the beginning because it was so personal. And I came up in a time of black-and-white vertical photographs about light. And then, there was the period in the '80s when people were using appropriated images. So my work didn't really fit in anywhere. And like Laura said, it's - the way people respond to the work is very important to me. I show myself battered, and in different countries, women have come up to me and said, I couldn't show myself. I couldn't talk about it until I saw these images. And that's what the work is really about. That's really my motive in showing the work.
GROSS: Well, let me pick it up from there. There's two, like, pretty famous photos of you. You were recovering from being battered. One of them is a photograph, a self-portrait, of you with one eye with a thick bandage over it. And the other is a little later in your healing when you have black - two black eyes. So why did you want to photograph your own healing - your own wounds and your own healing?
GOLDIN: So that I wouldn't go back to him. It's that simple. Most women, at least in those days, something like 90% of women, went back to the men who battered them. And it was very important to me to have a record of what really happened. So - and that's been sort of the motivating force of my whole life. My work is to make records that nobody could re-edit or deny, and that was the same with this work.
GROSS: What's it like for you to look at those photos now?
GOLDIN: It's the same as so many photos of my history. They're kind of frozen in time, those images. Often, they've become part of my history. And it's the same way I keep the people who I've lost alive in my studio, because I'm looking at pictures of them all the time. And so they're still alive for me. But I also realize the magnitude of their deaths.
GROSS: Nan, I want to ask you something else about your early work. Some of your early work was about your friends who were drag queens. What did you want those photos to say? Did you want them to look theatrical or did you want them to look just like day-to-day life?
GOLDIN: I moved in with the queens because I worshiped them, basically. I found them some of the most incredible people in the world that they lived without concern about the opinions of the rest of the world, including the gay community and lesbians. Everybody stigmatized them. And I found them so beautiful and so moving and powerful in their lives. And it was really the first body of work I did. I was photographing them because I wanted to put them on the cover of Vogue. I wanted - they wanted to be - they were my supermodels. And I wanted them to be supermodels in the world. And I took pictures every day and took them to a drugstore and brought back snapshots and collected piles of snapshots, which some of the times they ripped them up if they didn't like them.
GROSS: Did you take it personally if they ripped it up?
GOLDIN: No. That was their right. And generally, I've tried to maintain that right to all the people I photograph over 50 years. Not always, but I try to - the right to take their work out.
GROSS: You took very, like, intimate photos of your friends, including, you know, in bed with or without a partner, sometimes having sex. And one of the photos you took of a friend who was engaged in sex, after it was shown in one of your slideshows, she asked you, like, please take that out. It made her really uncomfortable. So you took it out, but you decided if you were willing to ask her to do that, then you should be willing to do it yourself and have yourself photographed or photograph yourself - I'm not sure which it was - in, you know, in - while engaging in sex. Why did you want to put yourself out there like that?
GOLDIN: First of all, I took those pictures. There was no one else present. When I photographed myself having sex, it was just me and the partner. And I felt that it was important to photograph myself doing the same things that I photographed other people doing. And I have a slideshow compiled of 700 images called "The Value Of Sexual Dependency." It's about relationships and all the difficulties in relationships. And there's a section in that of sex. And I felt it was important to add those images.
GROSS: How did you set up the camera so that you'd get a good picture without being behind the camera?
GOLDIN: It was a tripod.
GROSS: But did you have a stand-in or something so you could see, like, what the lighting was like and where to position it?
GOLDIN: No, I never did anything like that. I never set up my work. I just put a camera on a tripod and took pictures. And some of them were good and some of them weren't. But all through the work, it's important people understand I never ruffled the sheet or asked somebody to do something they weren't doing. That's part of the intimacy and power of the work. It wouldn't exist without that trust.
GROSS: My guests are Nan Goldin, whose life and work are the subjects of the new Oscar-nominated documentary, "All The Beauty And The Bloodshed" and Laura Poitras, the film's director. Before we talk more, here's a song used in the film and in Nan Goldin's slideshows. It's Charles Aznavour singing "What Makes A Man." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT MAKES A MAN")
CHARLES AZNAVOUR: (Singing) At night I work in a strange bar, impersonating every star. I'm quite deceiving. The customers come in with doubt and wonder what I'm all about but leave believing. I do a very special show where I am nude from head to toe after strip teasing. Each night, the men look so surprised. I change my sex before their eyes. Tell me if you can. What makes a man a man?
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with artist Nan Goldin, whose photographs are in museums around the world, and Laura Poitras, director of a new Oscar-nominated documentary about Goldin called "All The Beauty And The Bloodshed." Goldin and Poitras are also producers of the film. It's about Goldin's life and work and her campaign to get museums and galleries to remove the Sackler name from their walls. That name was on the walls in acknowledgements of the family's major financial donations. The Sackler family owned Purdue Pharma, which manufactured OxyContin and marketed it with deceptive practices that helped lead to the opioid epidemic. Goldin is one of the many people who became addicted to the drug after having it prescribed for pain following surgery.
Nan, during the period you were taking photos for what became "The Ballad Of Sexual Dependency," your slideshow. You spent a few months working as a dancer at a bar in New Jersey. And you were in New Jersey instead of New York, 'cause in New York, you would have had to be bottomless. And in Jersey, you only had to be topless, if I have that right. And then after that, you ended up working at a bar in Manhattan that was run by a woman who was trying to help former sex workers get out of the business. And you became a bartender there. What was it like being the bartender there? What was the clientele like, and what did you have to deal with?
GOLDIN: It was run by an incredible woman who was also very political. And she hired both women that had been in the sex trade and eventually women from downtown, artists. And the first couple of years I worked there, I worked at night. And then I went to an after hours that her partner owned. So I would work from about 8 at night till 8 in the morning. And I loved it. I was fascinated by everyone. It was Times Square when Times Square was Times Square, before it became Disneyland. And it was one of the most dangerous places in the world. And there were gang members. There were artists. There were mostly working class people who worked around the bar. People came from the New York Review of Books because she cooked amazing lunches. And it was really the only place you could eat in Times Square at that time.
So it was a real community, and that was the first few years. And then I got - and I met Brian there. And after I got battered, I was scared to be around men in that way. And - but also, the last few years I started working in the daytime and I - at the beginning I wanted to hear everybody's life story. And then after a few years, I was - didn't want to hear anything. I just wanted to hear what kind of beer the person wanted.
GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about the fear of men you developed after being battered?
GOLDIN: I was afraid to be around a group of men, a crowd of men. They felt very large and dangerous to me, whether or not they were. It was just not, you know, a sense of self in the world had become damaged and the world was risky.
GROSS: Did you bring your camera to the bar?
GOLDIN: Sometimes. Not so much. There's pictures from the bar.
GROSS: I'm curious, like, what you wanted from the bar and what...
GOLDIN: The bar became my life. And it was partially because I thought the downtown art world - I wanted to get away from the downtown art world. It was the beginning of people starting to go to galleries. It was 1980 to '85. And it was - I felt critical of the downtown art world. And I thought that Times Square was real life because it wasn't classist and there were people who were really struggling to survive. And I admired that greatly. And I liked the community.
GROSS: I want to ask you about your sister. This gets to some of the trauma of your childhood. Your sister, Barbara, was seven years older than you. And she lived a kind of traumatized life. You say that when she was 1-year-old, your mother started making her speak in full sentences. And when Barbara couldn't do that or wouldn't do that, she just stopped speaking for about a year and a half. You weren't born yet at the time, but you found out about that. Was it Barbara who told you?
GOLDIN: No, I - my brother told me.
GOLDIN: My oldest brother. She, you know, we had a lot of pressure in an intellectual Jewish family and a lot of pressure to succeed. And it started really young. I think my parents had no idea what a child was and wanted her - us to be perfect from the minute we were born. And my mother didn't understand my sister at all. And my father, coming from a conservative Jewish background, but having rejected that, still wanted a son as his first child, which is an old Jewish kind of custom. My sister was an outcast from the beginning. And my sister had a wildness. She had - they called her high-strung. Later, they tried to define her as mentally ill to take away her credibility. And they couldn't have her in the house and sent her to a reform school in a mental hospital.
GROSS: You got some of the doctor's notes from the mental health hospital, and one of the doctors commented that it was like the mother who should be institutionalized, not Barbara.
GOLDIN: Yeah. I think that's an important note. And my mother was very troubled, a very troubled woman.
GROSS: And she had been sexually - you found this out later, I think, that she had been sexually abused as a early teen?
GOLDIN: She actually talked about it a lot.
GROSS: So your sister died by suicide, laying in front of railroad tracks just as the train was about to drive by. This was in 1965. She was 18. You were 11. And you say she had mothered you even though she had never been mothered herself. And then she was gone. So there went your protection in a way, your mentor and your protection. At the young age of 11, what message did you take away from her death by suicide, messages about life or death or suffering?
GOLDIN: I realized how incredibly difficult it was for her to be alive. But it also made me very aware of the family because my mother's first reaction that I heard her say to the police is, don't let the children know. And I didn't see that as a protective thing. I saw it as denial, and that she still wanted to keep the face up and not have it be known that my sister had died by suicide and tried to say it was an accident, which actually there were some people in the larger family who were still saying that years later.
GROSS: As far as I know, you recently stopped taking photos. You edit them. You reconfigure the narratives of your slideshows. Why did you stop taking photos?
GOLDIN: I don't know. I lost interest. And I mean, I think I'm starting again now - oh, 'cause I don't have the same - my community's not alive. I don't have the same community. I've gotten older. I photograph the sky mainly - and animals.
GROSS: The sky and animals?
GROSS: That's so different from how you started.
GOLDIN: Well, they're pretty crazy pictures. I wouldn't say that they're your normal cliches.
GROSS: Well, describe them.
GOLDIN: I have a fascination with the sky, with clouds. They're about beauty, but they're also imbued with a kind of loneliness. And, you know, it's about getting old and trying to understand mortality. I think they're emblematic of my struggle with mortality. You know, I've realized I'm mortal. And as a young person, I was immortal.
GROSS: It's funny you should say that because you came close to mortality as a younger person.
GOLDIN: Many times.
GROSS: But you didn't realize it.
GOLDIN: I'm a real survivor. I haven't even had COVID.
GROSS: Oh, keep it that way. It's interesting that you say that by taking photos of the sky, they're, in some ways, about - they're photos about being older and mortality 'cause I had wanted to ask you, assuming that you had stopped taking photos, would you want to take photos of your life as an older person and your friends from the perspective of being an older person yourself? - because some of your groundbreaking photos are about when you're young and when you and your friends are kind of recreating yourselves to be the people who you really are as opposed to the people who you were told to be.
GROSS: So now, like, you know who you are and other people do, too, 'cause they've seen your work. So I was wondering if you wanted to, you know, take more photos now that you are older and know who you are and see the world maybe differently than you did when your formative photos were taken.
GOLDIN: Yeah, that's a good point. I mean, I didn't realize I was old until I went to a clinic in 2017. I was young. And then, I got out of the clinic, and I was old. So accepting being an old woman in this society, which is very different and could be seen as difficult, I mean, you lose your credibility. And you're invisible, which I kind of like. And I have thought now about making a piece about age.
My last work has been videos that I've made either from my archive and another piece called "Sirens," which is from films. It's 35 different film segments of films. And I like working that way as well. But I would like to make a piece about age and mortality. And, yeah, I think it's a good idea - thank you - to photograph my friends now, those who are alive.
GROSS: Well, let's take another short break here, and then, we'll be right back. If you're just joining us, my guest is artist Nan Goldin, whose life and work are the subjects of the new Oscar-nominated documentary "All The Beauty And The Bloodshed." Also with us is the film's director, Laura Poitras. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF PATTI SMITH SONG, "SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with artist Nan Goldin, whose photographs are in museums around the world, and Laura Poitras, director of the new Oscar-nominated documentary "All The Beauty And The Bloodshed" about Goldin's life and work and her campaign to get museums and galleries to remove the Sackler name from their walls.
Nan, there was a period when you didn't speak, I think, when you were still living with your parents or maybe afterwards, when you were so shy that you didn't speak or hardly spoke. And now, like - I mean, you've been outspoken through your photographs for years, but now you are, you know, literally outspoken. You're an activist. You have - like, you have a voice, and that voice has made a big difference in, for instance, getting museums to take down the Sackler name and to stop accepting their philanthropy because, you know, you see it as blood money, ill-earn gains from manufacturing and selling OxyContin. So, like, do you feel like a different person as an activist now it's - I don't think it's a role that you had played before becoming an activist around OxyContin and harm reduction.
GOLDIN: I think I was also an activist during the AIDS crisis, but unfortunately...
GROSS: Oh, sure. Yeah. Mmm-hmm.
GOLDIN: ...Not - this was a - this is a group I started of direct action, and it's true. It's the first time I did that, and I feel like everybody has to do something now. The world is so dark. Everyone has to do something to push back. And that was something I knew in my body - addiction and drug use and drug abuse. And I felt that was where I should focus. And, yeah, I'm a different person. I think starting P.A.I.N. kept me sober for many years.
GROSS: And I just want to mention - when you refer to P.A.I.N., you're referring to the group P.A.I.N., the activist group that you founded, Nan. It's an acronym for Prescription Addiction Intervention Now.
Nan, as a photographer who works in slideshows and controls the narrative that the slides in that show are telling and who keeps reconstructing the narrative by switching around the order of the slides and substituting some slides for other slides, in making this film, you had to hand over some of the control of that story to Laura Poitras, the director. Now, I know, Nan, you were a producer, too, so you had say in what was in and what was out. You were a collaborator with Laura. But can you talk a little bit about that process of mutually deciding what should be revealed in the film, what had larger meaning and what was just, like, too personal and maybe didn't have the larger meaning and should just be kept personal?
GOLDIN: So this is, you know, a film made by two very strong women who've always had final cut of their own work. So this collaboration, it's amazing that it went as well and ended as well as it did. Laura came every week during the second round of COVID to interview me about my sister, about AIDS, about my friends, about my politics. And we went very deep. She is a very intense interviewer. And things came out that I had never told anybody. And I gave these interviews with the understanding that I could have some say in what was used later. And she supported that. She gave me that. She earned my trust on that. She gave me the opportunity to edit some of what I was saying because it's me talking, and it's my imagery. And it felt very important that it be me telling my story the way I lived it.
POITRAS: And I can give you a couple examples. At some point, Nan - we talked about sex work. And she actually said, like, I think this is something that I'm willing to - I'm ready to talk about to destigmatize it. And I respected that. And if she had changed her mind after we did the interview, I would have absolutely respected that. And it wouldn't be in the film. There are other situations like that that are just deeply personal. I mean, as you've talked about in this interview, these are things that, you know, most people don't share with their intimate friends, let alone with a larger audience. So we had that understanding. And in the process, Nan didn't actually, you know, ask me to take any of the sort of - the topics out, but she wanted to go deeper into most of them and make them more complicated and more truthful to her experience.
GROSS: So this has been a pretty heavy conversation, talking about, you know, very personal and very political subjects. So I'm going to ask you something that is not in that category. The film is nominated for an Oscar as best documentary. Are you going to the ceremony? And if so, what are you going to wear, because it's a ceremony where, you know, so many people show up in these, like, fabulous gowns made by, you know, famous designers? And there's the red carpet and everything. And...
GOLDIN: I'm glad you asked that. It's the most important question on my mind, frankly, was what I'm going to wear. And I want to wear a fabulous gown. It's my dream.
GOLDIN: I love it. I love it.
GROSS: It's getting late (laughter) in terms of...
GOLDIN: Tell me about it.
GROSS: ...Figuring out what you're going to wear. Are you going to do, like, off the rack? Or...
GOLDIN: No, I hope to be dressed by a brand like Chanel or Prada.
GROSS: You better get to work.
GOLDIN: I am.
GROSS: Oh, good. OK (laughter).
GOLDIN: And I'm also going through 1stDibs, looking for vintage gowns, you know, so beautiful. So I'm doing my work. This is a distraction from my true work, which is finding what to wear to the Oscars.
GROSS: And, Laura, what about you?
POITRAS: I'm way behind.
GOLDIN: But Laura looks gorgeous at these things, too. She loves to get dressed up for them.
GROSS: I want to thank you for talking with us. Nan Goldin, Laura Poitras, thank you. And good luck at the Oscars.
POITRAS: Thanks so much, Terry.
GOLDIN: Thank you.
GROSS: Nan Goldin's life, art and protests against the Sackler family are the subjects of the new Oscar-nominated documentary "All The Beauty And The Bloodshed." Laura Poitras directed the film. Poitras and Goldin are also producers of the film. Here's the song that ends "All The Beauty And The Bloodshed." It's Lucinda Williams singing "Unsuffer Me."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNSUFFER ME")
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: (Singing) Unsuffer me. Take away the pain, unbruise, unbloody. Wash away the stain. Unwet my head with your sweet kiss. My joy is dead. I long for bliss. I long for knowledge. Whisper in my ear. Undo my logic. Undo my fear. Unsuffer me.
GROSS: After we take a short break, John Powers will review another documentary that's nominated for an Oscar called "All That Breathes." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRIAN ENO AND JOHN CALE'S "SPINNING AWAY")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The new documentary "All That Breathes" is about two brothers devoted to rescuing birds in Delhi, India. It was the first film ever to win Best Documentary at both Sundance and Cannes. And it's currently nominated for an Oscar. It's being shown on HBO and HBO Max. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, says it's a film that leaves you feeling better about life.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: In Anne Lamott's book on writing, she tells a great story about facing tasks that seem overwhelming. Her 10-year-old brother was doing a big school project on birds. And as the deadline loomed, he became paralyzed by how much he still had to do. His father put his arm around him and gave him a piece of advice. Bird by bird, buddy, he told him. Just take it bird by bird. This useful life lesson takes literal form in "All That Breathes," a wonderful new documentary that arrives on HBO and HBO Max, garlanded with international awards. Directed by Shaunak Sen and ravishingly shot by Ben Bernhard, this inspiring film takes us inside the lives of two ordinary seeming Muslim brothers in Delhi who are actually extraordinary in their dedication to doing good in a city teetering on the edge of apocalypse.
The brothers are named Saud and Nadeem - the former, friendly, the latter, a little grumpy. Along with their somewhat comical sidekick, Salik, they devote themselves to a project they began as kids - protecting the bird of prey known as the black kite, a glorious hovering creature widely detested as a scavenging nuisance. Day after day, ailing and injured kites arrive at their homemade infirmary, where the trio nurses them until they're able to fly back into the urban wild. Talk about bird by bird - the guys have helped 20,000 so far, and the injured kites just keep falling from the sky in a city whose air's infamously filthy and whose toxin-laced landfills may be the world's largest. Delhi is a gaping wound, Saud says, and we're just a Band-Aid on it.
Although the guys have moments of fun - they play indoor cricket - theirs is an endless, largely thankless task. We watch them do everything from fishing wounded birds out of sewage-y rivers to talking butchers into selling them cheap meat to grind up as feed. They keep applying for funding that never seems to come, making things trickier. They do this in a city charged with sectarian violence. During the filming, angry mobs kill Muslims and burn buildings in a neighborhood about a mile from their home, filling the already smoggy air with a miasma of dread.
But the movie's not grim. Working in an impressionistic style that couldn't be less strident or propagandistic, Sen has made a film that captures life in the richest and most humane sense. He immerses us in a world we didn't know before, showing us the lives of regular people, not celebrated artists or politicians. And he lets us make connections for ourselves. There's no narrator or text telling us what to think as we watch the intersection of three ecosystems. The largest is the natural one. "All That Breathes" is filled with shots of Delhi's animal life - lizards, insects, dogs, rats and the city's notoriously troublesome monkeys. These creatures all are doing what the kites have done, adapting to an often hostile environment shaped by humans. In this ecosystem, kites serve a necessary role by devouring vermin and rubbish in those huge landfills.
The second ecosystem, the social one, is demanding, especially on those who are outsiders. At this moment in Indian history, with Hindu nationalists wielding power, the outsiders are Muslims, including Nadeem, Saud and Salik. They're often treated as unwelcome, just like the kites, a metaphor that Sen lets us register but doesn't belabor. The final ecosystem is the family, where matters can get even more complicated. It's not simply that Saud's wife gets annoyed at how he ignores his home life, but than Nadeem and Saud themselves don't see eye to eye. Where Saud finds ecstasy in treating the birds, Nadeem dreams of going to college in the US. He wants to see the world and then return even more skilled at healing. Saud thinks of this as abandonment.
Now, this is a lot for one 90-minute film, and Sen sometimes strains a bit in reaching for a grand sense of meaning. Yet this is a quibble about a film that's bursting with humanity. In an age when we're constantly reminded of all that's bad, "All That Breathes" celebrates good things it's easy to forget - the wonder of life, the virtues of compassion and the human capacity to make the world better.
GROSS: John Powers reviewed the new Oscar-nominated documentary "All That Breathes," which can be seen on HBO and HBO Max. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interview with jazz musician Brad Mehldau, who was at the piano to play and talk about music from his new album of Beatles songs, or Mark Pomerantz, whose new book is an account of the year he and others at the Manhattan DA's office spent on a criminal investigation of Donald Trump's finances, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. And for a look behind the scenes at FRESH AIR, subscribe to our free newsletter. You'll find a link on our website, freshair.npr.org.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
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