Laura Poitras won the Academy Award for best documentary feature in 2015 for “Citizenfour,” her portrait of the National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. She could be in contention for the honor again this year for “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.”
Poitras’s latest film is a gripping look at the photographer Nan Goldin and the campaign she led to get the Sackler family name removed from major museum galleries (including the Harvard Art Museums). In March, Purdue Pharma, which the family owns, agreed to a settlement of at least $5.5 billion for its culpability in the opioid epidemic.
Like Poitras, Goldin spent some of her formative years in and around Boston. Her family had homes in Swampscott and Lexington, and she had her first solo show in Boston — featuring portraits of the LGBTQ community — in 1973.
Poitras, a former MacDowell Colony fellow and 2012 recipient of the MacArthur “genius” grant, was a cofounder of the online news organization The Intercept. She was let go in 2020 after she accused the publication of failing to protect a source, Reality Winner — the former NSA contractor who spent five years in prison after leaking a classified document in 2017 about Russian hackers and US voter databases.
“It’s disturbing that she got such a harsh sentence for one document that was of clear public interest,” says Poitras. She joined a recent Zoom call to discuss her latest work about abuse of power.
Q. At one point in the film, Nan says that photography for her was a way to walk through fear. Did that ring true for you?
A. Yeah. The camera could have been, you know, a piano. I feel like it’s how she discovered her voice as an artist, like, “Oh, now I have a tool.” I’m super shy, so the camera allows you to be in the room without always engaging, without interaction.
Q. Did you say you were shy, or are?
A. I’m really shy. Really shy.
Q. But the camera also draws attention to you. You’re the person who walks into a room or a setting with a camera. I mean, you have a barrier in front of you, but — “Oh, there are the folks with the camera. And now we’re all going to start acting differently because the camera is rolling.”
A. Possibly. I agree that they may act differently. But I would argue — and Nan also says this in the film — in relationship with the people that she’s photographing, it becomes part of the dynamic. We don’t pretend that the camera’s not there. It gives me the courage to go places that I probably wouldn’t go without it.
Q. Do you recall your first encounter with Nan’s photos?
A. I was studying filmmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute and I had a roommate who was a photographer and she introduced me to Nan’s book “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” in the ‘80s, soon after it came out. At that point, she was really like a force.
Q. Between the protests against the Sacklers and the fact that the film certainly works as a documentary about Nan’s career, it’s almost like you got a two-for-one. Was that one of the things that was most appealing to you?
A. [Laughs] My hook was the protests. Because that was happening in real time, and it had echoes to other work that I’d done — portraits of individuals who take on powerful forces. And then the other layers, the more personal layers and the historical layers, [those] came more organically as we started working together. I didn’t know that going in — that we’d have these two threads, as you say.
Q. Your career has been about relationships to power. Was there a point where you realized that’s what you were really interested in?
A. I did a film called “Flag Wars” [2003, with Linda Goode Bryant], which is about gentrification. It is very much about the questions around power. From the very first documentary, it felt clear that was a theme that I was going to return to.
Q. So right off the bat, you must have learned something about access and getting people to talk, and getting into the rooms that maybe people don’t want you to be in.
A. We were very transparent. We weren’t sneaking and pretending. I’ve had to actually be less transparent, like with the US government. But that’s a different set of stories.
Q. For “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” you must have had “How to Survive a Plague”  in mind — the ACT UP protests and how that inspired Nan and her group. Same producer, right?
A. Yes, Howard Gertler. How that film transports you to that time [of the AIDS crisis], and the importance of the archival material — there’s a kind of blueprint. How does a group of people organize? What is their internal conflict? How did they achieve what they achieved? It’s an incredible piece of filmmaking, and also an incredible piece of surfacing of materials that nobody knew had been documented.
With “All the Beauty,” we had Nan’s archive, which is vast and extraordinary, but also for instance the Provincetown footage [from Goldin’s summer stint there in the 1970s], where we meet Cookie Mueller, and John Waters is there. That’s all the archive team’s detective work.
Q. In terms of putting together a story about Nan’s rise as a photographer, were there sources that you looked to for inspiration?
A. I mean, we were incredibly fortunate that we were making a film about an artist who has an archive of their life. So in a way we were just lucky. When she talks about finding the camera, we have pictures of her and her first photographs that bring it to life. So that’s hopefully about, you know, just not [screwing] up the story. It was more fighting against genres than taking inspiration from other films.
We knew we had a really good, top-level [story] — there’s a pulse. There’s a big billionaire family, and a little group of people meeting in Nan’s living room, and they’re going after them. So we had a good dramatic thread. I really didn’t want to make in any way a traditional biography, “American Masters.” I’m the wrong filmmaker. Not that I don’t watch them, but it’s just not my thing.
Q. We know that you used to work as a chef at L’Espalier. There’s got to be something you learned from that experience that you’ve been able to apply to your filmmaking.
A. [Laughs] To be honest, working in a kitchen was good training. It was brutal. It may be the hardest physical work I’ve ever done, and just having to roll with unpredictable things. And then just some basic things, like you have to work with the ingredients you have. Don’t try to make something if you don’t have the right ingredients. If tomatoes are out of season, don’t make tomato salad.
E-mail James Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.