The cultural scene has been increasingly concerned with the relationship between art and activism in recent years. From questionable donations in renowned New York exhibition houses to the current controversies at the Documenta, in which the actually clearly defined positions between criticism of colonialism and anti-Semitism are consciously or unconsciously blurred, there is currently an increased sensitivity in the company.
The right attitude is also a big topic at film festivals at the moment: In Venice this year, the climate footprint of the journalists who have traveled to the event is even being counted, and September 8th was proclaimed “Ukraine Day” on the Lido. It is a difficult tightrope walk to ensure that art is not neglected with all the welcome actionism – an excuse that festival director Alberto Barbera also likes to use when the small proportion of female filmmakers in the competition is criticized.
Nan Goldin is the key witness to this artistic stance in Laura Poitras’ documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. The photos of Goldin, who rose to fame in the New York underground in the 1980s, can now be found in world-class museums: the ideal prerequisite for attacking the business from the inside. The name Sackler, a pharmaceutical dynasty that made many billions of dollars with the drug Oxycontin – and with it the opioid epidemic – was long associated only with family patronage.
Poitras, who won an Oscar for her documentary “Citizenfour” about Edward Snowden in 2015 and who works with the research collective Forensic Architecture herself at the intersection of art and activism, uses Goldin’s fight against bagger money in museums as the starting point for a portrait of the Artist who compares her photos in the film with “evidence” (of people and life). In this respect, “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” is also an outstanding forensic work. The protest performances in the foyer of the “Met” and in the Guggenheim spiral are the substrate of Goldin’s moving memories of her parents, her sister who committed suicide, and her New York surrogate family at the height of the AIDS epidemic, immortalized as unembellished – defenseless bodies full of hedonism, which she elevated to art in her photos.
On the other hand, after just a few minutes, the action drama “Athena” by French director Romain Gavras – son of Costa-Gavras and a fan of radical chic – proves to be an example of cinema and agitprop. Within seconds the camera finds itself in the midst of a violent uprising in the fictional banlieue Athena following the death of an Arab teenager at the hands of the police. The soldier Abdel (Dali Benssalah) is torn between his sense of duty and the pain for his brother who was killed. However, Gavras repeatedly embeds these social and family conflicts in confusing battles between the police and banlieue youths, who, like in the western, are converting their residential towers into concrete forts. The anger is understandable, but remains only a pose.
And then in Venice, of course, is Hollywood veteran Paul Schrader again, who is being honored for his life’s work and this time has brought along a particularly strange film to work through his favorite subject of guilt. In “Master Gardener,” Joel Edgerton plays a neo-Nazi in the Witness Protection Program who, in his new existence, tends Sigourney Weaver’s stately gardens. Schrader’s characters have always been more types than characters, but in what is now his third fall in career, his obsessions are becoming increasingly daring. Master Gardener has some nice botany lessons in it. As well as the reassuring realization that gardening makes even Nazis better people – and forgiveness is actually possible with a green thumb.