It’s hard to believe, but 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 film is one of the first documentaries to grapple with the disease and its impact, anywhere.
What’s perhaps most striking about watching the film now is the way it managed to pull so many different approaches to the then-emerging epidemic together. There are the more standard formal documentary techniques—basic talking heads, voice-over 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 the thing that hits him the most is the irony inherent in the film’s title. In effect, “no sad songs” was a way for the unofficial protagonist (Jim Black) to reject the victim tag so often attached to People Living with AIDS by the mainstream media. “But of course, it was terribly, horribly sad,” says Sheehan now. “There was no way of getting around it.”
No Sad Songs began when 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 was on board immediately.
You can feel Sheehan’s strategies kick in as No Sad Songs unfolds. And those strategies, as it turned out, would prove incredibly prophetic and prescient. There is the defiant de-victimization of the status of the film’s survivor; there are the statements from the worried well; there is the 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 health-care workers struggling to learn and cope with the beginnings of something that everyone knew was bound to get worse.
Incredibly, Sheehan avoided the trap that so many media types would fall into in the coming years: he never de-gayed his subject. Essential to the success of No Sad Songs is the affectionate recording of performance art of the time, by David Roche, Henry van Rijk, David MacLean and David Sereda. When I’ve shown this doc to my queer-cinema class at Concordia, some of the students suggest 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 a bit clumsy—is crucial. He shows us the raw, emotional response of queer artists of the time 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 hash out sane responses to the epidemic.
Sheehan premiered the film at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1985. He still recalls a critic from the Toronto Star asking him what his film was about at a cocktail party. “When I told him I’d made the film on AIDS, he literally turned and ran away,” recalls Sheehan. “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 that “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.”