Laura Poitras, the filmmaker against the powerful, approaches the Oscar again with the opioid epidemic | Oscars | Cinema | The USA Print

Clients expect impeccable dishes from an elegant restaurant. Exquisite and beautiful delicacies, in an atmosphere of comfort. As strange as it may seem today, Laura Poitras began her working career right there. Although, perhaps, as a young chef in the most exclusive places in San Francisco, the future director also learned how to make her creations choke more than one. Because ever since she discovered the San Francisco Art Institute and, there, the cinema, she has devoted herself to preparing films that are always indigestible. Normally, for the powerful of the day, whether they are politicians or rich tycoons.

“I hope the film brings problems,” laughed Poitras (Boston, 59 years old) in a talk with two journalists last September at the Venice festival. Indeed, it is likely that beauty and pain puts you in new trouble. But the feature film, which opens in theaters today Friday and will later go to Filmin, also gave him an almost unprecedented result: the second Golden Lion for a documentary in the history of the Mostra, after that of Gianfranco Rosi, in 2013, with Sacrum GR. And this Sunday he opts for the Oscar in his category.

For Poitras it would be the second, after the one he obtained in 2015 Citizenfour, portrait of former analyst Edward Snowden and his fight to uncover the program of global surveillance and interference of the US Executive in the private lives of its citizens. “I feel a certain pleasure in returning the pressure to a family of millionaires responsible for so many deaths. Or to the United States Government that instituted an empire of global surveillance and acts of indescribable violence”, confesses the creator.

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Nan Goldin, on February 13, 2023 in Beverly Hills. Chris Pizzello (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

beauty and pain corresponds to the first example: it recounts the fight of a group of activists against the Sackler family, which they accuse of causing 400,000 deaths by overdose in the US alone due to their opioid drugs, which gave them millions of dollars in benefits, a conclusion that also the book arrived the empire of pain (Reservoir Books), by Patrick Radden Keefe. Although, in addition to secrets and injustices, in Poitras’ films there is usually a central character who acts as a common thread. Where Snowden was, this time stands the famous photographer Nan Goldin. Heroes? “People are defined by their actions,” Poitras interjects.

“I have known Nan since the eighties. We are on another topic. And she told me that she was documenting the protests of her organization (PAIN). She was already following the movement from before, and I found it very inspiring. Some time later I told him: ‘Anything to help’. And she answered me: ‘Well, I’m looking for a filmmaker… ”, she recalls. Thus, an alliance between warriors was forged, two Davids more than used to knocking down Goliath. And, then, the creator’s camera began to film: on the one hand, the repeated actions of Goldin and PAIN to denounce the Sacklers, then known above all as philanthropists, for their rich donations to large museums and for the plaques they thus they remembered him in the corridors of the Louvre, the Tate or the Metropolitan. And, on the other, long and increasingly intimate conversations with three: the director, the photographer and her memories.

Surely, in the most sought-after kitchens in San Francisco, flavor was not enough: aesthetics also had to dazzle. And, in his latest film, Poitras seeks to mix powerful aromas with a visual aspect to match. Hence beauty and pain offer a parade that is very consistent with its title: there are the snapshots that made Goldin one of the most renowned photographers in the world, a symbol of the avant-garde, of New York in the seventies and eighties, of the fight against patriarchy and of independent creation. But the documentary also reveals, in her own words, all the wounds of a woman who lost a sister and a good part of her friends to AIDS and addiction to opioids. She herself became addicted to the drug OxyContin, produced by Purdue Pharma, owned by the Sacklers.

Still from 'Beauty and Pain', by Laura Poitras.
Still from ‘Beauty and Pain’, by Laura Poitras.

“People in a room planning how to take down a billionaire: I thought there was a movie there. For me they are the ingredients of cinema. And, besides, they took serious risks. These guys have private investigators and an army of lawyers: they can have a lot of impact on your life”, underlines the director. Even so, PAIN has achieved the removal of several plaques, that some centers reject donations from the Sacklers and question the way in which the family is viewed. That is, to overcome, at least in part, another aspect that prompted Poitras to record it. Although the director herself wrote a few days ago an article in Guardian to lament that in the main trench there is little progress: “Today, when the overdose crisis claims the lives of more than 100,000 Americans each year, the question of how these members of the Sackler family have evaded criminal responsibility does not only affect retrospective justice, but to prevention”.

In his article, Poitras quote Argentina,1985by Santiago Miter and candidate for the Oscar for best international film, as an example of the courage and risks of putting someone as powerful as the military junta of the dictatorship of the seventies on the bench: “A society that does not confront its crimes is condemned to repeat them already reward those who committed them.” For this reason, among other things, the director insists on going against it. Later it became known that, due to citizenfour, the CIA tried to classify Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald as “information hackers” and “agents of foreign powers.” “They didn’t get it, but that’s what they do. And it was during the Obama Administration.” The filmmaker, in fact, recounts that she prepared a reaction plan in case she ended up accused of the film and moved to Berlin, where she felt further out of the “reach of the US Government.”

An employee removes the Sackler family name from a Tufts University building in Boston in 2019.
An employee removes the Sackler family name from a Tufts University building in Boston in 2019. Getty Images

To this day, he suspects that he is still among the special observers of the Executive: “I do not think they forget the fact that a documentary filmmaker showed the mass surveillance program of the National Security Agency.” What does not prevent you, for example, accuse in Guardian with first and last name to Philip R. Sellinger, prosecutor in charge of the PurduePharma case, for not having managed to “prosecute a single executive” of the company. Or point out that beauty and pain It also recounts “the failure of US society to care for its people and give them the slightest health protection.” Or regret the coverage that journalism (did not) make of the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan and its “dramatic consequences”, topics that she addresses in the films The Oath and My Country, My Country. Finally, throughout the conversation, Poitras points even higher: “One of the most horrifying images of the Venice festival has been Hillary Clinton parading down the red carpet. I don’t like that she created a company to finance documentaries. It is not welcome. If she wants to contribute, let her publish the reports of torture that she and the government covered up.”

There are others, of course, the films that Poitras claims and promotes. Those of Field of Vision, the production company that she herself co-founded, which supports documentary filmmakers from all over the world, especially in underrepresented areas and communities. EITHER Decendents, Margaret Brown’s film about the search for justice for the heirs of a group of slaves, which he quotes in the conversation. And she adds: “Not only are the stories important, but also who tells them. We have to fight for all creative freedom and independence for creators. It also serves to set a precedent for the contract that comes later. And then the next film can be told not from the point of view of the financier, but from the author”. With the ingredients he wants, even if a few don’t like it. In fact, even better.

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