OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s start with Nan Goldin because it’s important to speak about her and your film. I’ve known Nan’s work for 30 years, but I didn’t know about her activism. What made you want to do a film about this aspect of her life?
LAURA POITRAS — The film be- gan with Nan’s current activism and her confronting the Sackler family, which is responsible for fueling the overdose crisis in the US. I think about the film as a portrait of Nan set within a wider historical context. I avoid biography or “biopic” to describe it. I was really blown away when I saw the first images of the direct actions she did at The Met and then the Guggenheim. It’s hard to describe — I saw something changing, a historical shift in this moment. It is part of a larger movement in re- cent years — and a lot of battles, fights within cultural spaces to call for accountability and to question the model of funding in the art world. In the US, Decolonize This Space has been very active and confrontational. So, Nan has been part of that movement. Her power is hard to quantify — she is an artist who is in the permanent collection of museums she is pro- testing against. In France, she received the medal of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres and the key to the city. She has so much power and authority to take on this fight.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What about her private life?
LAURA POITRAS — Right. She also knows, in her body, what it means to be addicted to OxyContin. All of Nan’s work is grounded in her personal experience. That’s what’s so extraordinary about everything she does. It’s not some idea, and it’s not a fad. It’s experience in the most profound way: the bodily experience, the emotional experience. And she put all of that into these actions against the Sacklers. This alchemy was key to the success of PAIN [Prescription Addiction Intervention Now].
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s very courageous because photographers are always behind their camera. They’re observers. They rarely create a situation.
LAURA POITRAS — Yes. Nan got out of recovery from Oxy in 2017, and the recommendation from everyone was, “When you come out of recovery, take it easy.” But Nan read an article in The New Yorker by Patrick Radden Keefe about the Sacklers, and she decided to devote her life to this. Within weeks of Nan coming out of recovery, she was taking on the Sacklers. She was absolutely driven, compelled to do it. And you’re right — I think being so public-facing is not something that comes naturally for her. So, she had to overcome that, too. The visual impact of these actions: they’re just so arresting. Many members of PAIN are artists, and you can feel that in their actions.
OLIVIER ZAHM — She’s a bit older than you, no? Do you see something of yourself in Nan?
LAURA POITRAS — Yes, there’s a lot I do see, as well as many differences. She talks about the camera as a way of find- ing a voice in the world. That absolutely resonates with me. I don’t consider my work aesthetically anywhere near hers, but I agree that the camera is a way to talk about truth and resist dominant narratives and confront power. We share a compulsion to reject lies and document the truth of our experiences.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Because, for you, art has to tell the truth?
LAURA POITRAS — Absolutely. Art has to tell the truth, and it also has to reject narratives that exist to protect power. What I’m trying to do in my work is to expose abuses of power and to do that through portraits of people who are confronting power. As Nan says in the film when she’s talking about her sister Barbara’s life and suicide, and the denialism in her family: “How do you show that it did really happen? That you did really see that. So, that’s the reason I take pictures.” I think we share that in common.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But at the same time, your films also have an aesthetic side.
LAURA POITRAS — For sure. Documentary is cinema — it’s art. I don’t make films as a form of activism. I make films to make cinema. To make something transcendent where the audience, the viewer, perhaps sees the world differently.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, cinema is still alive for you?
LAURA POITRAS — Of course. I live for cinema. Nothing makes me more passion- ate than the magic of cinema. It has such power. It can also be wildly abused and used in all kinds of
manipulative, propagandistic ways.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, are you a fan of Jean-Luc Godard when he turned political at the end of the ’70s, for example?
LAURA POITRAS — Yes, of course.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It was a big surprise for the people who love Godard. They didn’t understand anything.
LAURA POITRAS — I don’t think that you can separate art from politics. I think that’s a complete false- hood. Artists live within power structures. And it doesn’t mean that I think all the themes and topics of the work we make need to be political, but we can’t pretend that we don’t live in political structures. I feel that if you don’t address politics in some way, you’re ultimately de- fending the status quo, the inequalities that exist in society.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And of course, if you don’t address the human condition, you don’t address politics, either.
LAURA POITRAS — Exactly. I don’t believe in any kind of prescriptive ideas around art. I love many different kinds of films. I just saw EO. Have you seen it, the film about the donkey?
OLIVIER ZAHM — No.
LAURA POITRAS — It’s a really beautiful work of cinema. It’s inspired by Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar. It’s very abstract. It’s political; it’s about the human condition and, in this case, the human’s relationship to animals.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s very Deleuzian, this idea of the artist speaking for those who can’t speak, like animals.
LAURA POITRAS — Yes.
OLIVIER ZAHM — When we see how difficult it is to change the system, even within so called democracies, do you think that you need to be a complete out- sider, like Nan or yourself, to be able to criticize the system in a relevant way? Or is there a place inside the system for critique?
LAURA POITRAS — The protests that PAIN orchestrated were done inside museums. So, they’re part of the system, too. Again, we don’t live outside of power. I attempt to make work that is adversarial and exposes power, but if you look at the systems in which I work — who distributes them, where the financing comes from — if you start to unwrap all of that, there’s always going to be something that’s embedded within the capitalist societies that we live in. It’s hard to be outside of that. And yet, I absolutely believe in having an adversarial relationship to those systems to try and make them better. I’m thinking of David Wojnarowicz, whose work I revere. He talked about rejecting pre-invented existence. And Nan is part of that tradition.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you familiar with the French philosopher Michel Foucault?
LAURA POITRAS — Yes, of course.
OLIVIER ZAHM — He argued that there are multiple sources of power, and they’re all embedded within each other, and art is part of it, too. So, when you’re an artist, and you’re able to question your position in the system, it’s already an act of resistance. Can art and your films or Nan’s pictures be a new form of activism?
LAURA POITRAS — Nan draws the connection between ACT UP and PAIN. So, I think it’s important to acknowledge lineages and that nothing emerges out of the blue. And there are so many liberation movements, queer, Black, civil rights, etc. Is it new? No, these battles are not new, but the tactics change. When David Wojnarowicz talked about this sort of crack in the system, I think that was interesting — like, where’s the weakness, and how can you exploit that weakness in the system? There are forms of activism that are successful and do shift political realities. Society usually responds to those by co-opting them, right? And then, you have to find other ways that have impact. I’m thinking about the context of US history, during the Vietnam War, where journalists were allowed to bring in cameras and show the brutality of that war. And seeing that reality created a movement. The brutality of war was shown through a lens that shocked people and caused people to be against this war. So then in 2003, during the war in Iraq, the US government very cleverly figured out how to control messaging and propaganda, where you don’t see the dead bodies. They “embedded” journalists. So, there’s always a struggle to reveal the brutalities of the society we’re living in and the inequalities and gross power dynamics in ways that can communicate and create change.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In that sense, you are still optimistic, or maybe idealistic, because you still believe in this function of art?
LAURA POITRAS — I don’t know if I’m idealistic, but I believe in art. It compels me. I think that otherwise I would be…
OLIVIER ZAHM — Depressed?
LAURA POITRAS — Yes. It is a way to respond to the world I find myself in, as a citizen of a global empire. Documenting the horrors of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, the use of torture, mass surveillance, global mass surveillance, etc. Making films allows me a way to channel my rage about the United States and what it’s doing.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And you know deeply that through your films, you’re on the side of life.
LAURA POITRAS — I hope so. This morning, I was organizing some notebooks, and I had some notes about the early stages of working on this film with Nan. I wrote something like, “the film needs to rewire the viewer” if it is to do justice to Nan’s life and art. What do we need to do as filmmakers for the audience and the viewer to leave changed? And not just politically changed but emotionally changed, and not just like, “Oh, that was two hours, and now I go about my normal life…” How can that normal life be disrupted or rewired?
OLIVIER ZAHM — Because as an artist, you have to disrupt the system of power, but you also have to disrupt the system of information.
LAURA POITRAS — Yes. And particularly in this film, there are a lot of traps in the genre of biography, right? It can be very individualistic. And there were things we really wanted to do that shifted conversations. For instance, Nan talks about the fact that the wrong things are kept private in society. That we stigmatize things like sex work or drug use, and we reward things like billionaire families profiting off of the death and destruction. And then they are rewarded with their names plastered on the walls of museums. The corruption is so deep. So, how can the lens be shifted? That is what Nan is doing in her work. Shame doesn’t belong to somebody who gets addicted to OxyContin. Shame belongs to the corporation that knowingly misled doctors and said Oxy wasn’t addictive.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, for you, are cinema and other forms of art the only independent media?
LAURA POITRAS — No, I would not say that. People are working independently in every part of society. For example, I think there are journalists who are able to work independently. I’m not an absolutist. I think that people can do independent work within problematic institutions. I don’t think it’s only in the realm of art.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Isn’t it more and more difficult for a journalist today, someone who looks for the truth, to work in competition with the speed of digital media?
LAURA POITRAS — Hmm… I think you could also argue that we’re living in a time when gatekeepers have been removed, and that’s also productive. For instance, in the US context, the attention on police brutality in Black communities happened not because the media suddenly woke up to it or because it was a new phenomenon. It happened because people in communities by-passed the gatekeepers and documented the brutality themselves. People within these communities were saying, “This is what’s happening” and showing it. And only then was it covered in the elite mainstream media. The murder of George Floyd by the police was documented by a 17-year-old, Darnella Frazier. That’s why we have the reckoning that we have.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And in your personal life, do you feel safe? Are you not intimidated by all this political power you directly confront with your films?
LAURA POITRAS — I choose the risks I take. It’s a choice. In all of my films, the people whose lives I document — whether it’s Nan or Edward Snowden or Julian Assange or Dr. Riyadh in Iraq — they’re the ones who are really taking the risks. And not just to participate in a film, but because they’re all really on the frontline. Really, really, really. One of my favorite lines in the film I made about Assange is when he talks about risk. I’m paraphrasing here — he says something like: “I don’t believe in martyrs, but I do believe in taking risks. But you have to evaluate the risk against the opportunities. And by opportunities, I mean the things that you care about. Sometimes the risks can be very high, but the opportunities can be very high. The risk of doing nothing is profound. Every day, you die another day. We don’t have that many days. So, if you’re not fighting for the things that you care about, you are losing.” It’s a really beautiful statement. Doing nothing is a risk. I share that. I don’t take risks for the sake of taking risks. But exposing the US government’s empire, or mass surveillance programs, is something I care about.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And beyond a political agenda or a political fight, you introduced us to a radical fiction because there’s nothing more fictional than the world in which we live. It’s like Alphaville every day. [Laughs]
LAURA POITRAS — Yes. I mean, how do you feel about these questions?
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s fascinating, but a bit scary. It’s like from Alphaville to The Matrix and back again.
LAURA POITRAS — Exactly. It’s truly terrifying, this world we’re in. One of my favorite films is Chris Marker’s La Jetée.
OLIVIER ZAHM — La Jetée. I was thinking about that. It’s a permanent loop into the world we are entering.
LAURA POITRAS — Yes. And he’s such an interesting artist when you think of these questions of the political and the personal. He adopted a pseudonym so he could make films because he felt the films weren’t as political as, like, taking to the streets. It’s a very interesting thing to revisit.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Chris Marker is one of Purple’s favorite filmmakers. The way he used images, his personal memories, and his own experience to tell something so universal — it’s incredible.
LAURA POITRAS — Yes.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I like that you’re always very careful to speak from an American point of view. Because you were born in America, and now you live in New York, right? How do you see New York today? Is it the most political city in America?
LAURA POITRAS — I think the answer is no. A city with such radical inequalities, I’m not sure it can be. But I would say — it’s not really the question you asked — but one of the things I hope people see in the film with Nan is a different New York. A New York where other things were possible. For instance, Tin Pan Alley, the bar that Maggie Smith started in Times Square that was run by women, built on female strength. That’s a New York not of today — that’s a New York that’s gone, that’s been destroyed. And then the devastating loss of what happened through the AIDS crisis.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But still, New York has a specific spirit in terms of being an American capital, a big city, but also not totally American.
LAURA POITRAS — Yes, sure. But that’s maybe a bit of a romantic, outsider perspective, too. But still, it’s hard not to think about what New York was.
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