"I was a pretty avid documentary film watcher, but it never occurred to me that I would make documentaries until I actually started doing it," says the filmmaker Laura Poitras. In her younger years, "I saw a lot of movies, and a lot of them were the early observational films. It was D. A. Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers — I was obsessed with them. But I tend to be super shy, so it never occurred to me that I would find myself doing something that requires boldly asking people if you can spend a lot of time with them. But somehow having a camera mitigates that shyness."
Poitras has since become one of the loudest voices in documentary filmmaking. With her 2006 Iraq war documentary, My Country, My Country, she earned an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature. With 2014's Citizenfour, which followed Poitras' meetings with the whistleblower Edward Snowden and unearthed evidence of mass illegal invasions of privacy by the NSA, she won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, a moment that the filmmaker now remembers as a "totally out-of-body experience."
"The press were trying to find Ed's partner at the time, Lindsay Mills. They were looking for her forever, and we slipped her into the ceremony. She was sitting with us, and when we were announced, we were like, 'Do you want to come on stage?' And she did," Poitras recalls. "Nobody noticed that Ed's partner was in the room. And then, once we accepted the award, she slipped out. The internet, of course, is smart enough to figure out, 'Wait, that's Lindsay Mills!' And then she was gone. That was special."
It's the sort of story that comes from a life of remarkable encounters, first with Snowden himself, and then Julian Assange (2016's Risk), and most recently, with All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, the iconoclastic artist Nan Goldin. The film documents Goldin's campaign against the Sackler family and its Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin. Together with P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), the group she formed in 2017, Goldin staged a number of "die-ins" and other protests at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, and more cultural institutions, demanding they cut ties with the Sacklers, and for the family to be held accountable for their role in the opioid epidemic.
It is also about Goldin — who herself suffered from an OxyContin addiction — told through her own words and photographs. In looking at her renowned art and her grassroots activism, the film traces Goldin's story back to her childhood, creating a portrait of the personal and the political as one.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed made history when it premiered at the Venice International Film Festival and won the Golden Lion for Best Film, only the second time in the festival's 79-year history that a documentary has done so. "On a practical side, it means probably more people will see the film, which is always great," Poitras says, "but to be recognized by peers in cinema whose work I have such respect for, it's the most you can hope for, really."
A.frame: You debuted nearly 20 years ago now with Flag Wars and then My Country, My Country. What was it like entering the documentary scene at that time?
With Flag Wars, it was really the film where I learned how to make documentaries. It's a collaboration with Linda Goode Bryant about gentrification. It's about a Black working-class neighborhood, and it's being gentrified by white gays and lesbians. Linda and I thought, 'Oh, we're going to shoot it in the summer and it'll be really quick.' And it turned out to be something that took us years to make. And it taught us so many different lessons about filmmaking, about our responsibilities to the people that we film, about trusting the story, about going in with one set of ideas, and then, realizing a film is going to take you someplace else. It always does. Those lessons have stayed with me throughout every film I've made.
We filmed Flag Wars in Columbus, Ohio. And Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert were close by and came and helped us with sound. That was our introduction to how generous the documentary community is. Literally, Steve Bognar was like, 'Okay, you're going to put lavs on people,' because I didn't know how! Julia and Steve were our mentors in the field, and she's been such an incredible mentor for so many people. And, when we were editing, we knew our editor, Erez Laufer, had worked on The War Room, so he knew D. A. Pennebaker and Chris [Hegedus]. They came and saw a rough cut. The first documentary I ever saw was by D. A. Pennebaker, and I was working on my first film and Penne comes in the room and gives us notes. It says a lot about the generosity of the field.
Then when I made My Country, My Country, I didn't have experience going into a conflict zone, so I started reaching out. And James Longley was in Iraq at that time working on what became the incredible Iraq in Fragments. James was like, 'Anything you need,' and sending me lists of things that I should bring with me, how to travel, how to do all this. There was just the sense of people passing on the knowledge that they had.
Across the decades you've been doing this, have you seen ways in which documentary as a medium, as an art form has changed?
It seems like every five years, there's the Golden Age of Documentaries. That story gets written and you think, 'Wait, wasn't that five years ago?' And then, there'll be another one, and there'll be another one. I feel that there's been a really beautiful expansion of what's possible in the documentary form, and an understanding that documentary is cinema and that it's storytelling, and that it is not something that you do because it's good for you or educational or whatever. Michael Moore would be the first to say that it's all about the story. Yeah, it's about politics, but it's always, first and foremost, about making a good movie that takes people on a journey. I don't think that's changed. It's gotten more accessible, which is, I think, a really good thing. There's more resources, there's more financing, more people can make films. Those are good things. There's things to worry about — there is some contraction in terms of what people are interested in — but I trust that filmmakers will continue to push back and make art and make cinema.
You spoke about how what you learned on Flag Wars you've taken with you into your work since then. But are there ways in which you feel like you've changed as a filmmaker in those 19 years?
Sure. As a nonfiction filmmaker, you're in a relationship with the world that you're documenting. It's somewhat of a dialectical relationship; you're documenting but the world is also changing. Certainly, we've gone through some different historical moments that changed me as a filmmaker. I think I began as this very much observational filmmaker, in the tradition of Pennebaker and the Maysles, where my voice isn't in it. But somehow, I've gotten pulled a little bit more into my films, partly because I'm documenting a story that I'm actually a participant in. Definitely, that was [the case] with Citizenfour. So, it does change. It does change.
So much of your work is about power and corruption, but when it comes to your subjects and dedicating what will ultimately amount to multiple years of your life to a film and to its subject, how do you know when to say yes?
Usually, it's when you can't say no. It's literally, you can't not do it. Like, when I went to Iraq, I was just compelled. I couldn't not do it. I felt that was something I needed to say something about and needed to do.
Collaborating with Nan feels like a 'yes' in itself, but beyond the ability to work alongside her, as a filmmaker, what excited you about the possibilities of All the Beauty and the Bloodshed?
Nan's an extraordinary artist, and this film is very much a collaboration with her. It's also about her. It was amazing to work with somebody who has broken so much ground in art, in photography, and visual storytelling. That was just incredible. And the fact that she was also confronting power, that was the piece of the story that made me think I'm the right filmmaker, because there was that narrative throughline of Nan and her organization really confronting the Sackler family and causing some trouble. I guess I like troublemakers, and Nan's one of them.
A lot of filmmakers tend to want to keep their subjects out of the editing room, to have that creative control without vanity or second-guessing coming into play. Which isn't to say Nan would've been that way. But this was a collaboration, and she was involved throughout. Why was that important for you?
For a number of reasons. And it's different with every film. For instance, if I was making a film about a government official, the rules of the game would be different, because the kinds of questions are different. What's in this film is profoundly personal — it's a story that only Nan knows. But Nan started the film before I joined. She and P.A.I.N were documenting, and then, they invited me, so it was always going to be a collaboration. She was always a producer on the film, and it's drawing so much upon her work and her archive, it was the only way that I felt that the film should be made, is as a collaboration. Also, when Nan talks about her taking photographs, that the person being photographed also has agency in that process. It felt like that was also important. But I think it's unique, both because of the deeply intimate portions of the film, that this was something that Nan needed to have a say and be very involved in the crafting of it.
In your work, you create these relationships with your subject, Nan included, that are so intimate, and that lead to such vulnerable, revealing conversations. What do you think it is that allows people to open up in that way?
I do think my past work helps me be able to do the work that I do going forward. Ed Snowden reached out to me because he'd known the past work and he knew that I was capable of handling risk. The fact that I had a bit of street credit was important with Nan. I don't know. I'm genuinely very passionate about the films that I make, and transparent about the things that I'm interested in, and hope people will trust me in that process. It's incredible privilege. Every film I've made, it's incredible privilege to be trusted and to be able to have a front row seat to history. That's really incredible.
You won the Golden Lion this year. It had been nearly a decade since the last documentary, Gianfranco Rosi's Sacro GRA, won in 2013. As someone who was working in the field at the time, do you remember when that happened?
I think I was knee-deep in the NSA. I was waking up in the morning and thinking about the NSA, going to sleep at night and thinking about the NSA, and hoping I wouldn't get arrested. There were periods of my life that I wasn't all that plugged into most of what else was going on in the world, and I think that was one of the times. So, I'll honestly say, I'm guilty that I don't remember clocking when that happened, but I'm a huge fan of his work, of course. He's a master.
Now, yours is only the second documentary to do so. In your acceptance speech, you said — as you also said this earlier here in this interview — "documentary is cinema." Is that a perception you've felt you needed to overcome throughout your career, that people hold those separate and not equal?
I think there's a little bit of that in the field, and I feel like it's so important to just be like, 'It's cinema.' Yes, I make films about things that are political, other filmmakers will make other type of films, but we recognize each other's work through the craft of filmmaking. Like, I believe in cinema, and I believe that, for films to have impact, they need to transport us. They need to go into some other realm, some sort of transcendent realm. Like when you read a great novel, you hear great music, it stands on its own. And yes, also, it's about the world that we live in. We have to have journalistic ethics. All those things are also part of what we do, but I just don't want to forget that it's cinema.
It was utterly shocking that we got the Golden Lion. [Laughs] It was not something that was even on my wish list. I was thrilled to be in competition at Venice and to be the only nonfiction film in competition. That meant a lot to me as a filmmaker, and so it really wasn't even on my radar that it was possible. I'm very humbled. Very humbled.
If I were to interview you in another 10 years or 20 years, what do you hope the future of documentary looks like?
I mean, I would have different wishes for the world that we're living in. These are dark times! But I don't want the field to be caught into commercial formulas. I think those are dangerous. I hope we don't fall into any easy formulas, that we go forward with really strong ethics. When you make work about somebody's life, you have a lot of responsibilities in that, and that's important. I hope that we continue to support filmmakers internationally, that we're expanding the voices that are making films, and expanding what cinema can be.
By John Boone