Toronto 2022 Review: All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
Biopic-style documentaries often run the risk of hagiography, especially when the subject themself is directly involved. Whether it’s a resistance to introspection on their own part, or an unwillingness by the filmmaker to probe the necessary depths, even the most cinematically effective pieces can ultimately feel shallow. Not so with All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, a moving portrait of photographer and activist Nan Golden by Citizenfour director Laura Poitras.
I’ll admit I had only a passing familiarity with Golden’s work prior to the film, but I left with the profound sense that she may be one of the most important artists of her time (and ours). Renowned for her photographic portraiture, Golden’s ability to piercingly capture both internal life and interpersonal dynamics — as evidenced most clearly by her long-running compilation The Ballad of Sexual Dependency — creates an almost uncomfortably voyeuristic sense of connection on the part of the viewer, a trait that Poitras utilizes to great effect as she frequently brings Golden’s work to the forefront.
Ostensibly, the driving narrative of the film is Golden's turn towards more flagrant activism in the years following her struggle with a life-threatening addiction to Oxycontin. Leading a collective of like-minded individuals, we see her and her organization stage protests in prominent museums across the world — many of which have housed her artwork — in an effort to force those institutes to reject funding from the Sacklers (the family behind Purdue Pharma, generally considered to be the entity most responsible for the American opioid epidemic) and remove the family's name from their halls.
But the true power of the film comes from the fact that, of course, Golden has been an activist for almost her entire life. Through candid interviews, archival footage, and Golden's own work, Poitras traces the artist's life unflinchingly, burrowing in on childhood and adulthood traumas to show how Golden has consistently wielded her immense talent to bring to the forefront demons society would prefer to keep hidden. From broken gender dynamics and domestic violence to the AIDS crisis and, finally, the opioid epidemic, the Golden we spend two hours with — a woman with demons of her own and plenty of regrets, as the filmmaking masterfully unravels — has pulled back the curtain on the worst humanity has to offer while simultaneously reminding us of the best.
It's this multifaceted dynamic, pointed to by the title itself, that make the film of the year's must-sees.