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The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.

You really weave so many stories together so beautifully in the film. How did you and Nan weave in and out of each other’s lives?

Laura Poitras: Nan and I have intersected, sometimes literally or sometimes we’ve come across each other’s work. I was first introduced to Nan’s artwork when I was studying filmmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute. That was the late 80s and she had already published the book version of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, which I think is how the larger audience came to know her work, those that weren’t in New York. But she was also still traveling with the slideshow and she would come to the Bay Area to screen. I never got to see it with her projecting, but I did see Ballad in the early 90s. She was always a groundbreaking woman and artist who was just creating a new cinematic language. I find her still photographs to be so cinematic, right? They suggest stories that you lean into with the framing and the mise en scene. And then obviously the sequencing creates a storytelling in the slideshows. When I made Citizen Four and was traveling with it, we met at a film festival and then we reconnected around the Sackler issue and pain. We were working on a letter—there had been another situation of toxic philanthropy in the art world and a mutual friend invited both Nan and I for breakfast. It was during that breakfast that she told me about the film because Nan had already begun filming her actions with the intention of making a film. During this meeting she said she was looking for collaborators. She was also was looking for producers and we started talking about Howard Gertler, who she had just met and who was one the producers on How to Survive a Plague, about the AIDS crisis. I kept thinking about the project and volunteered for it after that.

I was struck by your background and her background and the two of you doing this together. There must have been a point where you had this conversation about how this was going to work.

LP: With non-fiction filmmaking, there is always something of an organic process that happens. You go in with a set of ideas and then they evolve and change. I was originally very compelled by the contemporary story of Nan taking on the Sackler family and these protests and the sort of direct action that felt very in line with my previous works. I was a little nervous about the artist biography part just because there are so many films about renowned people and I wonder how they function as stories… do they rely on the renown of the subject versus standing alone as films? So I had a little hesitancy there, but I couldn’t not do it. I couldn’t not go into her or go into her work. It was a very specific thing that happened. I was working on the film and saw her piece about her sister which is called Sisters, Saints and Sibyls. There’s a short excerpt where you see the three screens. It’s a devastating work about her sister. And there are certain lines in that, after her sister’s suicide and after her mother says to tell the children it was an accident. It sort of felt so much about what drives Nan. Like this relentless pursuit of truth. This idea of pretending it was an accident, I think that catapulted her at a very young age into being someone who is in resistance to what mainstream society is thinking. That’s what her family was thinking, or what the 50s and 60s thought of young girls and sexuality. I think at a very young age Nan was thrust into oppositional positions. When I saw this piece, I felt like it was so important that the film include her sister. But I didn’t know if that was something that Nan wanted. I would have obviously respected if she didn’t want to talk about something so deep and so painful. We talked and I told her why I thought it was important to the film, and she said that it was something she would talk about in the film. And we worked very closely on how the story of her sister is told in the film.

There’s something so fierce about Nan and she’s been on the right side of history for so long

Were there other specific parts of this film that you felt strongly about including in the film that you two had discussions about?

LP: Going back to the theme of portrait versus biopic, I was very clear that I wanted not to make a film that was, this happened, then this happened, and that was just following the beats of her life. I wanted to be selective around the story we were telling and particularly that it’s casting a critique on the larger society. This is the cruelty of society—of this society, not all societies. With the editing team, we first had Joe Bini who is a really incredible editor and who had worked with Werner Herzog and Lynne Ramsay, among others. He worked on this document by going through the material and built this dramaturgy document which had this kind of weaving and these themes. And each of these chapters had a theme. The first theme was “Merciless Logic,” which is a kind of like, this is who we are as a society. This is a society that destroys people, a society that crushes people that rebel, it’s a society that is conservative and allows the Sackler family to profit off many generations of Americans dying. And the government says nothing. I knew very early on that it was going to move in the direction of cinematic societal critique. And I knew very early on that the exhibition she did in New York at Artists Space was going to be a pinnacle of the film, at the beginning of third act. It was something so important that Nan twice stopped herself in that situation and was looking around and saying, generations are dying, my generation is dying here. And the government is doing nothing; people are doing nothing. I knew there would be a convergence between the contemporary pain thread and what happened around the AIDS crisis and particularly this exhibition, which was an unapologetic celebration of queer sexuality, while also acknowledging the devastation of this community. It’s kind of hard to imagine all that Nan endured. Someone who found her family and David Armstrong in the work she did and the trans communities in Boston and New York and then lost so many of those close friends. I knew I was always going to have include that, from early on. Then who to focus on kind of emerged from that. There’s a lot of people in Nan’s life that aren’t featured in the film because we had to make certain choices. David Armstrong was clearly important, Cookie Mueller, David Wojnarowicz… what a man. If only we had his voice today.

Well in a way we do, because of his art. Can you talk about the interviews and over what period of time they took place? I was very moved when we were allowed to hear Nan say “could you please stop,” and I wonder if there were other moments like that.

LP: We wanted the audience to feel that something was happening over time and the interviews didn’t just happen in an afternoon. And that there was a back and forth. They took place probably over a year and half. They were audio only in Nan’s apartment in the same room where the meetings would happen, in the living room. I would come over and I sort of joke we’d procrastinate for a few hours because it was not easy stuff to get into. We were specific in each of them about what we would talk about, so she knew ahead of time. Sometimes someone else would be there. When we talked about Barbara [her sister] it was important for both of us to make sure someone else was there to make sure we were okay in how we processed it before and after. That was her close colleague, Alex Kwartler, who is an executive producer on the film and was very involved by working with her and making sure it was safe, because it was really intense stuff that she shares in this film. So we did these over a year and half, we did the first round and made a rough cut, we showed it to Nan, and then there were things she wanted to back and talk about more.

Were there things you thought you knew about Nan and her work where you realized, I didn’t really know this at all?

LP: In the second chapter called “Another Realm,” I hadn’t realized she was so young when she was sent to foster care and was kind of on her own at such a young age. And then this whole body of work that MIT gave with the polaroid cameras. That story I didn’t know the extent of—the fact that she still had these photographs, and that they feel like the work of a mature artist. Those David Armstrong photographs are so beautiful and she was such a young person making them, yet she was so fully formed as an artist. That was an incredible discovery. There was one of her first pictures of David and Tommy in the sand pit, and we had that photograph from far away, and late in the editing process she found the close-up. It was just these two beautiful queer men in a time when being queer, there wasn’t language for it.

Can you talk about the questions that you chose to answer, and the questions that you chose not to answer?

LP: We were not interested in teasing the audience or withholding anything. I think with any film, there’s a time when the audience has the emotional capacity to connect to something. And in the film we’re talking specifically about her sister. There were times when things in the third part were earlier, and we experienced that the audience was not ready. There were certain things we wanted to lay out, and certain things we chose to withhold because we felt like the audience’s emotional capacity had shifted over time. For instance, there’s this very powerful line where Nan says “that’s the problem. How do you show the world that you did experience it, you did feel that, it did happen, that’s why I take pictures.” It’s a very thesis-like statement. We tried that once earlier in the film, and it just felt like random exposition. A thesis statement, but not in a good way. But hopefully when you hear it at the end, it’s with emotion and says something about not only her sister, but why she does what she does as an artist. That’s just storytelling. You try things, maybe this doesn’t work here but it’s important and we’ll come back to it. I did think that this film takes you on a journey or down rabbit holes and you don’t know why you’re going down it, and then you learn later. For instance, some people know some of the characters like Cookie, but some people don’t, they don’t know she was such a force, and we don’t want to manipulate that.

What has been interesting for you as you’ve traveled with this film?

LP: I think the thing that’s been moving is how this film emotionally resonates with people, and sometimes in very different ways. Sometimes people have experience with addiction or they have a sibling that they’ve lost, or coming out. It’s powerful to see the different ways it resonates and that’s what we wanted. In the editing, we really wanted it to stay with people and move them in some way. When you direct non-fiction, you’re having your own experiences, and you hope that the audience has some of those as well. There’s something so fierce about Nan and she’s been on the right side of history for so long. She had to makes these choices at a very young age, and they’re not easy choices.