Arts & Entertainment
2 min

Screening the epidemic

A look back at Canada's first AIDS documentary

A piece of performance art from No Sad Songs.

It’s hard to believe, but more than a quarter century has passed since Nik Sheehan made the first Canadian documentary response to the AIDS epidemic, No Sad Songs.

In fact, his landmark 1985 film is one of the first documentaries anywhere to grapple with the disease and its impact. And it’s an intimate, unblinking recording of the Toronto queer community’s brave response to the burgeoning epidemic.

What’s perhaps most striking about watching the film now is the way it managed to pull together so many different approaches to the emerging epidemic. It employs some standard formal documentary techniques — talking heads, voiceover narration conveying the cold hard stats, and an array of experts — along with performance artists doing their shtick in response to a community’s grief and loss.

But looking back, Sheehan says what hits him now is the irony inherent in the film’s title. Calling it No Sad Songs was a way for the unofficial protagonist, Jim Black, to effectively reject the victim tag so often attached by the mainstream media to people living with AIDS.

“But of course, it was terribly, horribly sad,” says Sheehan now. “There was no way of getting around it.”

No Sad Songs was hatched after Sheehan got a call from the AIDS Committee of Toronto’s Kevin Orr, who said the organization had $20,000 in grant money that had to be used for an educational audiovisual project soon — or be returned. The question he had for Sheehan was, “Can you make a documentary for $20,000?” Sheehan got on board immediately.

Sheehan’s strong approach kicks in as soon as No Sad Songs opens. And the strategies he used would prove incredibly prophetic.

There are defiant characters who refuse to be victimized; statements from the worried well; a clear effort to show that gay men are indeed not anti-family, but intrinsic parts of family units (this was crucial at a time when “family values” simply meant homophobia); and there are doctors and healthcare workers struggling to learn about, and cope with, the beginnings of something everyone knew would eventually get worse.

Incredibly, Sheehan avoided the trap so many media types would fall into in coming years: he never de-gayed his subject.

Essential to the success of No Sad Songs are the affectionate recordings and performance art pieces by David Roche, Henry van Rijk, David MacLean and David Sereda.

However, when I’ve shown this doc to my Concordia University queer cinema class, students have often suggested that some of the agitprop performance art is perhaps a bit hokey.

I always argue that Sheehan’s very recording of it — even if it’s occasionally clumsy — is crucial. He shows us the raw, emotional and immediate response of gay artists to the brutal onslaught at the dawn of AIDS and HIV.

Sheehan also takes us into editorial-board meetings at The Body Politic, where advocacy journalists at the legendary magazine hashed out sane responses to the epidemic.

Sheehan premiered the film at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1985. He still recalls a cocktail party at which he met a critic from the Toronto Star who asked him what his film was about. “When I told him I’d made the film on AIDS, he literally turned and ran away,” Sheehan recalls. “There was so much panic and misunderstanding about it in those days.”

Sheehan says the saddest songs came for him in the aftermath of the 1985 release. “My friends began to get sick,” he says. “Not only was the disease stigmatized, but a death from AIDS is one of the most revolting deaths imaginable. I remember one of my former boyfriends covered in Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions. It was horrific.”

Worse still, Sheehan recalls, “when someone would get sick, friends would just disappear. They didn’t want to be reminded of it.

“The cruelty of this disease was breathtaking.”