All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is the latest documentary from Laura Poitras, this year's guest of honour at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. IDFA is two days in full swing and this rich, Venice Golden Lion-winning portrait of artist and activist Nan Goldin has just been screened at Theater Carré. Following it is now the Master Talk with the director. A great word for the conversation Orwa Nyrabia, artistic director of IDFA, has with her on stage.
That we are dealing with two like-minded souls here is immediately apparent when Nyrabia suggests that the title All the Beauty and the Bloodshed could also very well refer to the IDFA offer. I am sure he is not going to question her sharply, but he will give her the opportunity to talk more about her motivations and experiences based on her films. If ever there is a difference of opinion, it is cause for cheer. They have known each other for some time. When they met in Berlin a decade ago, Poitras personally put a meal on the table. Because yes, she knows about that too.
When Nyrabia suggests starting from the very beginning, Poitras confirms that she did indeed start out as a cook. Initially with a Tunisian chef as her tutor, and later a Japanese one. She then discovered her passion for avant-garde at an art school in San Francisco. Only to enter the documentary world when filmmaker and activist Linda Goode Bryant took her to an urban neighbourhood in Columbus, Ohio, where gentrification was in full swing. In that largely black working-class community, white gays and lesbians bought houses and hung out the rainbow flag everywhere. Would that meeting of two completely different worlds produce a better understanding? Poitras herself gives the answer: a heartfelt 'no'.
That exploration of ethical issues and power relations she made with Goode Bryant would become her first documentary: Flag Wars. To be shown at IDFA as part of the Poitras retrospective. Flag Wars is beginning of a series of films with which Poitras not only demonstrates an exquisite feel for the medium, but also shows an independent attitude and critical eye.
I can illustrate those two sides by putting two things side by side. First, the Oscar she received in 2015 for Citizenfour, her film about whistleblower Edward Snowden. Secondly, the fact that the US intelligence agency NSA is following her after My Country, My Country (2006) placed her on a list of persons of state danger and kept a sharp eye on her. Because yes, when filming this impression of the US invasion of Iraq, which she found shocking, she had not remained bravely in the so-called green zone. No, someone had seen her filming in the red zone.
Nyrabia sees in her work not only that sharp critical eye but also moments of hope each time.
Poitras illustrates this with her experience in Iraq, where she spent eight months filming for My Country, My Country. She found that so-called liberation of Iraq, which involved torture, something absurd. Yet there she also learned to revise her initially cynical attitude. The clip we are shown not only shows a US soldier declaring at the infamous Abu Graib prison that a nine-year-old child detained there is a dangerous individual. There is also that doctor from Baghdad who, although critical, remains committed to his country with courage and commitment.
It takes little imagination to recognise that courage and commitment also in Edward Snowden, the protagonist of Citizenfour, and in WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in Risk (2015).
Nyrabia noted that Poitras speaks of 'we' when she refers to My Country, My Country states that 'we invaded Iraq'. Does this mean that criticism of America need not get in the way of her love for the same country? To which Poitras laughingly retorts to him. No, she really doesn't want to use the word 'love'. After all, she is a citizen of the United States, so she has to say 'we'. She is all about taking responsibility, bringing up lies. She immediately puts the risks she sometimes runs with this into perspective with the example of Chelsea Manning's action. That US soldier was arrested in Iraq in 2010 for leaking to WikiLeaks a recording of a US helicopter attack on Baghdad. Taking responsibility, that's what it's all about, Poitras reiterates.
Noting that the actions of Snowden, Assange and Manning, plus the press freedom under pressure, also reinvigorated her own motivation. Nyrabia notes in this context that Poitras broadened her scope of work, including journalism projects.
Meanwhile, Nyrabia does see some kinship between Poitras and the filmmakers she has chosen for her Top 10 at IDFA. Indeed, Poitras confirms, these are not the very best films she knows. Most of the selected titles concern work by filmmakers who oppose state violence and other repression. Such as This is Not a Film, the defiant ode to art and freedom by Jafar Panahi, who is currently detained in an Iranian prison. She was also very impressed by The 3 Rooms of Melancholia by Finn Pirjo Honkasalo. An impressive poetic triptych about children amid the violent Russian-Chechen conflict. She cites the poignant scene of the sick mother giving her three little ones to a woman who takes orphans under her wing.
The end of the Talk is approaching, with little time left for Poitras' latest piece of work, which Nyrabia mentioned at the beginning: All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. Her wide-ranging portrait of photographer Nan Goldin, who became famous for her intimate, for the time, highly unconventional photographs of non-conformist subcultures. Only to later become at least as famous for her fight against the Sacklers. The family who made good money as art sponsors while their company Purdue Pharma produced the notoriously addictive and ultimately often deadly painkiller oxycontin.
Nyrabia notes that All the Beauty is a strikingly layered portrait that brings together Goldin's painful personal background, her art and her activism. Yes, confirms Poitras, it is not just a continuation of her earlier work, but she is entering new territory with it. It began as an account of the high-profile actions by which Goldin eventually moved museums to remove the Sackler name from their facades. The film came about in close collaboration with Goldin, and so it could also end up being a personal story about courage and emotional vulnerability. Intensely political and intensely personal. We find that it still touches Poitras.
To which I like to add that it could also be a very inspiring film for today's activists. That is the hope, which was mentioned earlier.
Knowing plus seeing
Finally, when Nyrabis asks her to look back again, Poitras notes that All the Beauty actually also harks back to the beginning. Because during that art course where she discovered the avant-garde, she had also met Goldin. And she learned how images can persuade, something she touched on earlier in this Talk in connection with Citizenfour. After all, what was still the point of a documentary on Snowden if his revelations had already been made public? That, argues Poitras, was that you could really see the still young Snowden, really hear him tell it, and thereby become convinced of his genuine inspiration.
Knowing something plus seeing something brings about change, she summarises.
From cynicism to hope, Nyrabia adds. Because, in his own experience, should he ever be overcome by pessimism because of the doom in the world shown in many documentaries, he only has to look at the work of new young talents to have a positive 'WOW' experience again. Judging from the applause, the audience wholeheartedly agrees.
IDFA is on until 20 November in Amsterdam and a host of other locations in the Netherlands. For the Amsterdam festival programme with films, post-screening talks, events, immersive and interactive installations see: www.idfa.nl
There also more about the programme around Laura Poitras.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed enters cinemas on 19 January.