Nan Goldin shot to fame with her visceral, heart-wrenching photographs of the drug-addled, sex-strewn lives of her East Village “tribe” in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Despite her Bostonian roots, everything about the photographer—her art, her voice, her hair, her trademark chain-smoking neuroticism—screams New York.
So it’s odd to see her out of context, stalking distinctively across Europe in the slice-of-life documentary Nan Goldin: I Remember Your Face, which will soon be screened on Goldin’s home turf as part of the KINO! Festival of German Films. The documentary follows the photographer to a recently purchased apartment in Berlin, where she spent several years in emotional recovery after the AIDS epidemic swept catastrophically through her downtown Manhattan universe.
“Nan is a person you either totally connect or you don’t,” says documentarian Sabine Lidl, admitting that she herself became immediately besotted. She spent six months filming Nan, on-and-off—keeping direction to a minimum in order to preserve a sense of authenticity and immediacy. “I didn’t ask her so many things,” Lidl recalls, “Because Nan is talking all the time! Sometimes I even had to ask her to be quiet for a little.”
The result is a whirlwind hour of intimate, unstructured engagement with the famously eccentric photographer and her phalanx of friends. The often-tumultuous nature of her personal and professional life is always evident: her troubled relationship with her parents, the suicide of her sister, the transgressive nature of her work, her drug abuse (in the final year of her cocaine use she didn’t leave her house at all, she just did drugs)—all are touched on, but never lingered over. At one point, reflecting on her exploits in New York, Goldin’s eyes fill with tears. “The only thing I’d done in thirty years was lose everyone I loved,” she whispers.
The documentary has a home movie feel, filmed almost exclusively with a handheld camera. This wasn’t Lidl’s initial intention. “In a way that was Nan’s choice, because she doesn’t want a film crew around her,” she explains. “And you know, maybe she was right. It’s much more her.” In this way Lidl captured scenes that would not have been possible with a large crew. “We’re just hanging out together,” says Lidl—in much the same way that Nan creates her best work while simply spending time with friends. Besides, trying to get Nan to adhere to a schedule would be tricky. “She follows her own plan in her own time,” says Lidl fondly. “It’s Nan time!”
Lidl is aware of her subject’s legendary status in New York, and is a little nervous about presenting a European take on the New Yorker to the home crowd. “But her life is in every city the same,” Lidl laughs. “She’s an inside person and spends a lot of time in her apartment, wherever she is. So, you don’t see Paris in this film, but we were in Paris.”
Nevertheless, Lidl is confident that the documentary sympathetically reveals Nan’s multifaceted personality. “She has a mixture of glamor and reality that is unique,” explains Lidl—a depth of feeling and a wellspring of political resolve that is very much rooted in the era she came of age in. The movie gives viewers the chance “to feel with her, to cry with her, to be insecure with her.”
And will Nan be attending the screening? Lidl laughs. “It’s a not-answering time for Nan,” she explains, resignedly. “At the moment she’s not available for me… that’s just Nan.”