Oscar-winning documentarian Laura Poitras slammed the Venice and Toronto film festivals for “providing a platform” for the Clinton family to engage “in a kind of whitewashing.”
Her comments come as TIFF this week hosted the Canadian premiere of Poitras’s “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” a documentary about the artist and activist Nan Goldin, and just days after the film won Venice’s top prize, the Golden Lion.
It is the rare doc to land slots at the superfecta of Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York, and Poitras said she thought “long and hard” about whether or not to voice criticism at the same venues feting her latest work. Nevertheless, she said, “journalists need to ask hard questions.”
Hillary and Chelsea Clinton have made appearances at both Venice and Toronto in support of both their forthcoming Apple documentary series Gutsy; and in support of Tamana Ayazi and Marcel Mettelsiefen’s documentary “In Her Hands,” which the Clintons produced.
Speaking at TIFF’s Doc Conference on Tuesday, Poitras said “there is nothing more serious that threatens the First Amendment, not just in [America], but also threatens journalism globally,” than the prosecution of Julian Assange. The Wikileaks founder is facing extradition to the U.S., where he would be prosecuted under the Espionage Act for his role in publishing revelations about U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Those revelations came at a time when Hillary Clinton served as Secretary of State in the Obama administration.
“This is literally the most important issue facing journalism globally right now,” said Poitras. “And it’s alarming to see some of the most powerful people in the world, such as Hillary Clinton, walking a red carpet at Venice, and at TIFF, and saying nothing.”
She added that programming the Clintons’ feel-good documentary work amounted to “engaging in a kind of whitewashing” on their behalf. “Hillary Clinton was actively involved in the wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Poitras said. “She supported the escalation of troops. And I really find it troubling that this is all being forgotten and we’re providing a platform.
“Documentary is journalism,” she added. “Hard questions should be asked. We stand for facts and holding people accountable. And I don’t understand why there isn’t more interrogation — we really have to look at what this means for the state of documentary.”
Poitras’s “Bloodshed” is considered a leading contender for the best documentary feature Oscar, a prize she previously won in 2015 for “Citizenfour,” her film on exiled NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
She added that there was a degree of hypocrisy to seeing fall festivals program “No Bears,” the latest film from imprisoned Iranian filmmaker Jafar Pahani, while at the same time welcoming figures such as Clinton. “The U.S. government’s effort to indict and prosecute Assange is, I would say, not dissimilar to imprisoning Jafar Pahani,” she said.
Variety has reached out to TIFF and Venice for comment.
Elsewhere at the Q&A, held with TIFF Docs programmer Thom Powers, the filmmaker explained how making a film about an artist battling the Sackler family’s attempts at philanthropic art-world whitewashing didn’t feel a world apart from her prior films dealing with the NSA and the Iraq War.
“There are a lot of similarities, I think, between the work that I was doing with looking at the War on Terror, which was always sort of a critique of U.S. power, and this,” she said, “looking at a different struggle, but also [in Goldin] somebody sort of at the forefront of a historical moment who’s causing change. I was immediately drawn to that.”
Poitras also addressed her position in making a film critical of the Sackler family, given that she herself comes from a wealthy family that has in the past made multi-million-dollar philanthropic donations in the medical sector.
“I am very aware of my position and have used it, because I do not wish to perpetuate [those] sort of injustices and inequalities in the world that we inhabit,” she said. “I can assure you, I’ve been very vocal about my problems with the choices that my family made. I don’t agree with them, and they know it very well.”