“Life is absurd, to begin with. So you look at the absurdity of death, and you say, ok I’m gonna go, but I’m going kicking and screaming or I’m going to make some sort of contribution… I’m in a unique position right now to do something, and apparently I am the only one who is willing to go and stand on a street corner and yell I have AIDS.”
The calm young man looking at the absurdity of death and figuratively yelling “I have AIDS” is Jim Black, the anchor of Nik Sheehan’s landmark documentary No Sad Songs (1985, 63min). Widely considered the first documentary to grapple with the AIDS epidemic, Sheehan’s 1985 film offers not only a portrait of Black, strengthened and empowered by the political dimension of his diagnosis, but of a community of earnest young men and women in Toronto mobilising against an increasingly politicized epidemic.
The film received mixed reviews at the time. Critics didn’t take too well to a portrayal that strayed from the standard depiction of what journalist Gerald Hannon termed, “AIDS as something that is happening to a passive, powerless group of people.” Both The Globe and Mail and Cinema Canada wrote it off as lacking conviction and emotional power, as failing to fully exploit the narrative of Jim Black. The implications of these reviews was clear: not enough overly-victimized, dying queers to pity. In reality, Sheehan’s film is beaming with emotional power rising from the inspiring young people shown in clinics, in living rooms, in bars, in theatres and committee meetings, all coming together to support their community. As AIDS Committee of Toronto’s Kevin Orr emphasized before the film’s premiere, these are “real people trying to deal with a very real problem.”
No Sad Songs was one of the first in a cascade of community and artistic responses to the epidemic. Critic and scholar Thomas Waugh identifies three distinct genres around which most of these cultural works developed: melodrama, autobiography, and agitprop. Sheehan presciently touches on these three artistic impulses by intercutting the warm humour of his protagonist Jim Black, who takes ownership and transforms his diagnosis into sociopolitical power, with provocative agitprop performance pieces, and with the journalists, activists, and community members shown actively responding to the epidemic.
The interspersed sequences of performance art might seem quirky to present-day viewers, but “they are essential to the success of No Sad Songs,” as critic Matthew Hays points out, showing “us the raw, emotional responses of queer artists of the time to the brutal onslaught at the dawn of AIDS and HIV.” With each piece, Sheehan emotionally amplifies key concerns raised by the community members, such as the lack of public empathy, religious exploitation by the “moral majority,” and the threat posed by a sex panic to new-found sexual freedom.
Sheehan offers in No Sad Songs an invaluable cultural document of some of the brave men and women who early on stood up and fought with, as Hays reminds us, “the beginnings of something that everyone knew was bound to get worse.”