The film is basically the story of photographer Nan Goldin and her battle against the Sackler dynasty. The Sackler family are art collectors and philanthropists whose fortunes derive from addictive painkillers. There is an epidemic caused by these drugs across America that has led to 600,000 deaths so far. Last year, 2022, saw the biggest total to date, at 100,000.
The film is rightfully picking up awards all over the place. The reason is that because she is so famous, her photographs are in most major galleries. Because of her fame, much of her life has been filmed, including many of the actions she led through her organisation called P.A.I.N.
It is a biography, from the death of her sister through mental problems to her own addiction to these painkillers. She survived because she could afford an addiction clinic, as she explained to a Congressional Committee.
The film includes a very moving section about the Aids outbreak in the United States, during which many of her friends died, many of whom could not afford medical insurance. She is involved in actions around this.
But the bulk of the film is about her intervention, which centres on the demand that galleries stop accepting Sackler money and then remove the name Sackler.
The activities are very inventive: the use of pill boxes thrown into the fountains at museums, groups chanting in the museums, die-ins at the Metropolitan Museum. They had people drop prescription forms from the highest level, and visitors have joined in the cheering.
They base these actions on the internal memos that Sackler wrote to incentivise doctors to prescribe and flood the country with their products.
The first success they had was at the National Portrait Gallery in London, where they were due to hold a Goldin exhibition. She told them that she would pull it if they accepted Sackler’s money. They turned down £1.5 million.
The first success in removing the name was at the Louvre in Paris, which removed it. In the end, all the galleries have removed the name. A major campaigning success for any organisation, because, as she said, the people on the boards were thinking that if we give in on this, people will question where we all get our money.
As this was going on, families were demanding compensation. But the campaign had gone on for so many years that the Sackler family had managed to create a new company and had withdrawn $10 billion of its profits. So, when the claims came through, this company declared bankruptcy, saying it couldn’t afford to pay.
So, the only place the case was discussed legally was in the bankruptcy courts. The Sackler’s agreed to pay $6 billion but came away with a clean record. The judge did insist that the three surviving Sackler’s sit in on two hours of testimony from the victims. This is powerful to watch, but there is no compensation.
If you want to watch a film about real-life activists, this is the one. It is quite unusual to see such films in the cinema. Goldin rightly claimed that Congress and the courts did nothing and that only the protesters’ activities achieved anything. It is a powerful documentary on the sickness of capitalism and is well worth seeing.
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