Monday, June 14, 2021

Nik Sheehan | No Sad Songs

just saying

by Douglas Messerli

Nik Sheehan (director) No Sad Songs / 1985

1985 was the essential year for the cinematic expression surrounding the growing crisis in the LGBTQ community of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), the final stage or “syndrome” of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) transmitted primarily through blood and semen. That year saw the first full-length film on the subject, Arthur J. Bressan, Jr.’s October 31st release, Buddies, the first television drama about the disease and its effects, An Early Frost, televised on November 11th of that year, and four months earlier, the first documentary about AIDS and the gay community, Canadian filmmaker Nik Sheehan’s No Sad Songs, which might have served as the model of so very many documentaries that followed.

      I say “might” because, alas, very few of the others demonstrated the diversity of narrative approaches and the soul and heart of Sheehan’s amazing production, produced on a shoestring budget. That it was even made is almost a miracle. The movie came into existence only after the AIDS Committee of Toronto realized that they still had $20,000 of grant money they had received for an educational audiovisual project which, if they didn’t use soon, would have to be returned. Kevin Orr, from the Committee, made a call to Sheehan asking was it even possible to make a documentary for that amount of money, and the filmmaker immediately responded that he thought it could be done.

      The result is on first look such a highly eclectic mix of genres, personages, and narrative strategies that it almost seems to be an enthusiastically crazed get-together of Toronto LGBTQ figures asked to ponder, suffer over, and, yes celebrate those in their community suffering from  AIDS—except as you gradually watch the various “acts” appear one by one through the work’s frames you realize that such a first-time effort could hardly resist such inclusiveness, and in hindsight, provides us with a record of how the issues surrounding what was in those days described as “the gay plague” involved nearly everyone from the hellish bigots to the heavenly saints. Moreover, as reviewer Matthew Hays points out, it captured how people both concerned and confused about the unknown epidemic worked in various ways to confront the issues of the day: “The film stands as a crucial document and an ode to those who were fighting on the front lines, just as the gravity of what was to come was sinking in.”

      Including a gay man from the medical profession (Evan Collins), a psychiatrist (Stephen Atkinson), a sociologist (John Allen Lee), bar owners and an S&M patron (Dale McCarthy), an performing fireman talking about death (David Roche), satiric performers (Henry Van Rijk and David Sereda), a playwright (Sky Gilbert) and his actor (Joe Norman Shaw), British actor and writer Neil Bartlett, two gay drag artists dressed as nuns (Sister Atrociata von Tasteless and Sister Celestial Gates), board members of Canada’s major LGBTQ publication Body Politic (Gerald Hannon, Rick Rébout, and Chris Bearchell), and administrators and a volunteer of AIDS Committee of Toronto (Kevin Orr, John Bodis, Karsten Kossman, and Linda Boyd)—all judiciously woven together with a talking head who informs us of missing facts—before focusing on his central figures of people actually suffering from AIDS, their lovers, close friends, and family members (Jim Black and his lover Kevin, Jim Bozyk, Greg Lawrence, and Martha Cronen).

       Each of these figures, woven in-and-out by Sheehan, of the narrative of his designated “hero,” Jim, presents with a shimmering facet of the kaleidoscopic vision of the entire work. If some of the “performances,” in particular, seem a little amateurish and exaggerated with their satirical educational intent, I agree with the observations from another piece by the reviewer Hays I mentioned above:

“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’s film begins by establishing some territorial boundaries that later documentaries of latter years refused to declare. Although most people already recognized that AIDS was not just a “gay” disease—without imagining, however, that years later it would be more common as a heterosexual disease in Africa—the focus of this work was the male homosexual community. And secondly, given that focus, the director and his interviewees argued it was crucial to approach the discussion of AIDS with a complete openness to what being gay represents in its sense of history, its current community, and the various individual definitions of sexuality that often defines it.

     As a gay physician Collins argues early in this work that if AIDS often leads to a paralysis, of not knowing how to explain it, cure it, or even help people to live with it, it must approached as an issue far bigger than a medical one. “The gay community needs to talk and deal with, argue, and have general discourse on how it acts on a social and political level.” 

     Atkinson, the psychiatrist, warns us on relying instinctually on notions of “queerness” that come with the territory, particularly as they might be applied to AIDS:        

     “Gay people grow up in an environment that teaches us to be afraid of ourselves before we know that we’re gay. We’re afraid of dirty old men, child molesters, some murderers, perverts, all those sorts of things society tells everybody gay people represent. Things we learn about homosexuals before we realize we are homosexual. AIDS feeds into that very much. The whole idea of it being a scourge of God, a gay plague, or some kind of proof that we are bad, dirty, infectious, anti-social type people...can have a personal effect on men who are dealing with AIDS.”

     Sociologist John Allen Lee is wary even of the word “homosexual,” particularly in how it relates to the medical profession and dealing with AIDS. He reminds that the word “homosexual”  was created, in part, to rid us of the former depictions of gay men being Sodomites or buggers, and so on. By describing same-sex behavior as “homosexual,” it allowed it to become a medical condition which could be observed and possibly treated. He reminds us that as recently as the founding of the Mattachine Society by Harry Hay in 1950, an early gay rights group, the goal was not to demand universal acceptance but was asking for gays to be pitied and treated respectably. It took years to get the American Medical Association and psychiatrists to stop defining “homosexuality” a disease, and he justifiably fears that if AIDS is seen primarily as a gay disease in need of treatment by the medical profession, there is a strong opportunity to pull the word “homosexual” back into the description of a medical condition.

       The editors of Body Politic realize that the media, in describing how AIDS is a thing that “happens” to gays and that the various effects are seen to “happen” in relationship to having been infected with HIV, that it will create a strong sense of passivity, which may destroy all the positive actions of the LGBTQ community in general and certainly discourage what precisely this film is arguing for, open talk about the need for change.

      Lesbian editor Chris Bearchell feels that, in fact, the gay media has been too passive even in relationship to the general media, making the mistake of reporting each new theory and explanation of AIDS that arises with equal emphasis. “One week it was poppers and another week it was getting it in the ass, and the next week it was something else,” she regretfully recalls. That misled people, she argues, and led to utter confusion. She implores them to move forward with calm, responsible reporting, attempting to let people understand the distinctions between what is known, what is thought, and what is suspected to be the truth about AIDS.

      With regard to the role women might play with regard to AIDS, support volunteer Linda Boyd later in the film expresses her fears that for some time “women in the community did not consider it to be their issue.” But gradually as gay brothers, friends, and acquaintances began to become infected, they realized that as women they might play important roles. “Some men afflicted with AIDS still have difficulty in expressing their fears and emotions to other men but feel more comfortable with women,” probably connected with the mother image she quips.

       Body Politic editor Rick Rébout brings up one of the most important secondary concerns of Sheehan’s film. In the recognition that anal sex is perhaps the greatest method for the transmission of AIDS, the problem arises how to talk about sexuality with regard to gay sex. He rightfully argues that the solution often posited—“You just shouldn’t do that” (reminding me of the campaign to prevent teen pregnancies, “Just don’t”)—is not only naïve but represents a total lack of awareness of what sexuality means to gays in general, and what a particular sexual act means to many.

       Earlier Kevin Orr of the Aids Committee of Toronto argued quite insightfully about what gay liberation and being gay means at heart to many people. Coming out at the age of 17, he got immediately involved in gay liberation, he reports. And since then:

 “I’ve been fighting to do various things. But it all comes back to being allowed to sleep with other men. So AIDS threatens that very directly. When you fight for that so hard for several years and you end up in bed with somebody, are you going to say to yourself ‘Is this going to kill me? Is this wrong?’ Of course the answer is No. All sorts of people have had to change their sexual practice. Sex in the age of AIDS is probably not as good as it was in the 70s. To have to have anal sex with a condom or not have anal sex at all is a problem. As a gay man one of the first things you learn is you have an anus. And straight men don’t know that.”

      Even though playwright Sky Gilbert has written plays that seem to argue against senseless promiscuity, he still insists “The joy of touching for the sake of touching is part of gay culture.”

       Finally what these specialists and commentators realize is that AIDS has also had a very positive effect in further organizing the community and in bringing the entire LGBTQ world into a battle that concerns life and death, while also forcing them that they need the help of the heterosexual community as well. Although many Christian fundamentalists and bigots saw AIDS as God’s punishment, a greater number heterosexual and even highly religious individuals came forward to help in the battle. As ACT administrator John Bodis summarzies:

“One of the amazing things that happened is AIDS further brought the community together to successfully challenge not only the disease but bigotry and much else. But gay organizations, no matter how well organized could not fight the AIDS crisis alone. Coalitions of health care professionals and concerned individuals, straight and gay are necessary.”

Although the film does not go this far, I might add that in hindsight AIDS, despite the early heterosexual fears and refusals to even keep company with gay men—when Sheehan was making this film a critic from the Toronto Star asked him what his film was about: “When I told him I’d made the film on AIDS, he literally turned and ran away. There was so much panic and misunderstanding about it in those days.”—eventually it helped the heterosexual world recognize that gays were not only people of “flesh and blood,” but deserved the same rights as all others, at least with regard to marriage. If nothing else, it brought the community fighting for their lives into the social glare instead of relegating it to gay bars and back streets. Homes and families were suddenly missing gay sons, brothers, and neighbors. You could no longer pretend that they’d simply left home never to return.

      And it is these gay men of flesh and blood about to die simply talking that this film, at its most profound, is concerned.

     Sheehan’s long conversations with Jim Black and his lover/caretaker Kevin becomes the focal point of all the other intelligent and moving observations. And in Jim, Sheehan found a spokesman who reminds me a great deal, in fact, of Bressan’s dying hero in that year’s fictional film Buddies.

     Like Bressan’s figure, moreover, Jim has become a fighter, who after 36 years of seeing the unfairness of the world while waiting for others to help make it right, he now stands out on street corners to remind others of his and his kind’s existence: “if my name pops up somewhere, they’re going to associate me with AIDS., but I knew that before I started all this.” 

 “The family is divided. My father’s caught in the middle. He realizes I’m sick. He knows I have something serious. But also, he will not admit that I have AIDS. It could not happen to his son. He’s taking it as well as can be expected. But father’s 73 years old, he’s in ill health and he’s handicapped. All this is an awful lot to dump on a man in that condition.” 

      It's amazing that a dying man can still empathize with an aging father who will not quite admit to his own son’s condition, but his brother’s decision that “from here on I no longer exist in the family,” is a bit harder to sympathize with. “They want me to stay away from their children. I will never get to see my nieces or my nephew or my god-child again. It’s hard.”

     Like Bressan’s figure, moreover, Jim has become a fighter, who after 36 years of seeing the unfairness of the world while waiting for others to help make it right, he now stands out on street corners to remind others of his and his kind’s existence: “if my name pops up somewhere, they’re going to associate me with AIDS., but I knew that before I started all this.”    

     He continues, “The AIDS thing will eventually be like tuberculosis and no one will make a big thing about it. But right now it’s a hot issue and it’s important. And I want to make my life important by helping to get people to know everything they can about this. Because if it can happen to me, it can happen to him, it can happen to anybody, straight or gay. And you can go into a hospital and a blood transfusion and you could get AIDS. You don’t have to be sexual. And it’s up to me to go out there and make a fool of myself, and crack all these crazy jokes and say, ‘look unless I give you a blood transfusion, as long as I sit here and talk about it, you won’t get AIDS from me.’ We have to remove the fear. And the only way to remove the fear is knowledge. And you go and kick the public in the teeth and say ‘Look at me, I am a flesh and blood person. I have a disease you don’t want to talk about. But you’d better.’”

      It’s strange but all the others in this film don’t really think much about death, even the performative fireman who reminds that most of us of think of death coming “after you have lived your life.” But all the gay men dying of AIDS talk about the fact that they are dying now as younger men. As Greg Lawrence reports, he visited his dying friend’s family with him and they had a fierce fight that ended with his friend trying to tell his family that he was going to soon die. Lawrence reports that when his friend actually said it that even he realized that it was really true.

      Jim speaks of it often and mostly quite humorously. He insists that epitaph read: NO SAD SONGS FOR ME FOR I HAVE FOUND MYSELF.

      Appropriately, however, it is the soon-to-be survivors who get the last word in Sheehan’s film, and what they have learned is not only that life without their loved ones will represent an impossible tear and loss in their lives but while their lover and brother still live that it is most important, just as the doctor ordered in the opening speech of this film, to talk and to keep talking, to find out how the dying feel and hope to live out their remaining lives.

     As Martha, whose brother Gary is dying of AIDS, expresses it: “The most important thing is to talk. I have to start talking more about the details. Because you can pretend too much and not talk about what really is happening. What do people who don’t have family, who can’t talk, who can’t share their fears, their joys do?  You have be together. To laugh and giggle and watch a movie and maybe go for a walk. And have a moment when you’re sad, you’re sad together.”

     Jim’s lover Kevin finally opens up: “I’m preparing myself with the problem of who to hold on to, who to talk to.”

    Obviously, this director loves to hear people talk, to hear about their fears, their expressions of accomplishment, their life stories, the joys they about to lose forever. In his hands these men become far more than hapless men on their deathbeds. There is almost something joyful in their encounters with death. Yet, as he admits, “But of course, it was terribly, horribly sad.” And I assure you that each of the three times I watched this film, I cried. But that won’t ever stand in the way of watching these brave figures talk to me for hour again.


Los Angeles, June 14, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (June 2021).




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