While Nick Sheehan’s No Sad Songs(1985) is often cited as the first feature documentary about HIV/AIDS in Canada, it was predated by an interesting cable access program based in Vancouver, BC. Running monthly from 1980-1986, Gayblevision was groundbreaking in many ways—most notably its role as Canada’s first television series by and for queer viewers. Its period of operation also overlaps with the emergence of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Canada, and HIV/AIDS-related content appears in numerous episodes. From public service announcements, to in-depth analysis of mainstream media coverage, to press conferences, to direct address by PLWAs to other HIV-positive people, Gablevision covered the early years of the epidemic in ways no one else did in Canada. All in all, Gayblevision produced over 3 hours of HIV/AIDS related content for distribution on cable television in Vancouver. The Facts On A.I.D.S., produced as a special by Gayblevision in 1983, is the most concerted effort by this group of queer media activists to produce HIV/AIDS content. Ranging in focus, the special primarily functions pedagogically, educating viewers about medical and societal understandings of the disease at a time when little information was available, let alone non-judgemental. This episode also outlines the need for and emergence of a community response to the health crisis via AIDS Vancouver. A full description of the special with timestamps is available here.
A full list of Gayblevisions episodes are available streaming online thanks to one of Canada’s oldest artist-run centres, VIVO Media Arts Centre. Special thanks to Karen Knights at VIVO for her insight into the Gaybelvision collection!
The Legacy of Jon Gates (1993) – 52 minutes, colour, english
by Peter Davis & Harvey McKinnon
Jon Gates moved from Vancouver to Ottawa in 1989 to push Canadian-based international development agencies to deal with the AIDS crisis in the global south—particularly sub-Saharan Africa. He worked for the International Committee for AIDS and Development (ICAD) where he would interface with the groups like Oxfam, the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, and the Red Cross. At the heart of Jon’s international solidarity activism was a call for people in the global north to refuse a therapeutic vaccine or cure for HIV until the pharmaceutical companies, who would no doubt control the supply and prices, made it accessible to the global south. His speech pre-dates the successful triple-combination therapy announced at the World AIDS Conference in Vancouver in 1996, but he had a clear view of the future to come and the challenges that would accompany it. Had Jon survived until triple-combination therapy had become a regular treatment regimen for HIV infection, undoubtedly he would have had much in common with renowned South African treatment activist Zackie Achmat, refusing treatment until it’s available to all.
Gates’ call for international solidarity was most clearly articulated in his keynote speech at the 1992 Canadian AIDS Society meeting shortly before his death and captured in the documentary from Villon Films posted above. To learn more about Jon Gates’ work, check out the video above and/or read our oral history interview with John Foster.
The work of the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention (Black CAP) in Toronto has been discussed in numerous oral history transcripts we’ve recorded at the AAHP. Douglas Stewart and Dionne Falconer, the first two Executive Directors of the organization, tell the origin and and history of Black CAP’s emergence from the AIDS Committee of Toronto and the Toronto African, Caribbean, and Black (ACB) organizing milieu connected to Zami in the late 1980s. But in this instalment of “From the Video Vault” we have an early prevention video from Black CAP to share with you that was directed by Glace Lawrence with original music from David Findlay. According to its creators, this video was the first HIV/AIDS video produced for and by ACB communities in Canada. The video has been recovered, digitized, and preserved in full above thanks to the work and generosity of director Glace Lawrence, the current Executive Director of Black CAP Shannon Ryan, Wanda vanderStoop at Vtape, and the team at the AIDS Activist History Project. While the educational preview is streaming here at no cost—do consider an institutional purchase of the DVD to continue supporting the important work of both Vtape and Black CAP.
The Colour of Immunity was produced for the Toronto Living With AIDS (TLWA) cable access series. TLWA was distributed on Roger’s and MacLean Hunter cable networks in Toronto from 1990-1991. It was produced under the leadership of video artist Michael Balser (1952-2002) and well-known video artist John Greyson. The two worked out of the same artist run centre, Trinity Square Video, and were associated with the artist-run video distribution centre Vtape. Inspired by the Gay Men’s Health Crisis’ Living with AIDS television series in New York City (1988-1994),TLWA followed up two of Greyson’s previous AIDS video curation projects: the one-hour compilation tapeAngry Initiatives, Defiant Strategies produced for Deep Dish TV in 1988 and the three-VHS tape program of over twenty international AIDS videos,Video Against AIDS (1989, co-curated with Bill Horrigan). Interestingly, theTLWA series was funded, not by the Canada Council for the Arts, but by grants from the City of Toronto Board of Health, Health & Welfare Canada, and the Ontario Ministry of Health. The series featured eleven approximately thirty-minute videos created by a diverse array of video artists, activists, and community organizations in Toronto. While the series formally ended in 1991 after being censored by Roger’s Cable, some of the eleven original tapes continued to be shown in film festivals and organizations kept their tapes in circulation for educational purposes, including Glace Lawrence and Black CAP’sThe Colour of Immunity.
Catching up with Glace by email in the fall of 2017, she recounts getting involved with The Colour of Immunity video project as a member of Trinity Square Video (TSV), the artist run centre Michael Balser and John Greyson were launching the TLWA series from. Although she noted her memory was a bit fuzzy, her presence at TSV and the fact that she completed her first film in 1989 made her a natural fit for the project.
In discussing the video’s life beyond the TLWA series and how Black CAP used the tape, she recalls, “Initially when it was made there were a few public screenings. One of them was at Harbourfront Centre, and at the Ontario Black History Society. I suspect that the latter was due to the fact that I used to work at the Society. Then it was used in HIV prevention workshops at Black CAP. It was geared to the ‘MTV’ audience. They wanted content that would engage youth of the MTV generation.”
Elaborating, Glace notes that while The Colour of Immunity was explicitly youth oriented, there was indeed another production that Black CAP was involved with after her video. She recalls, “Survivors (1992), was more family oriented. It was financed through Black CAP via private funding and director/producer Alfons Adetuyi helped develop the proposal. Prior to that time, there weren’t any Canadian based productions that focused on the Black and Caribbean experience locally.”
And while this post largely focuses on preserving and historicizing the critical early work of Glace Lawrence, Black CAP continues to use video to this day in helping promote its work, tell its own story, and fight the ongoing AIDS epidemic. Below, Black CAP’s twentieth anniversary video produced by Alison Duke—another powerhouse Black woman filmmaker whose contemporary work often deals with HIV/AIDS and ACB communities—reflects on twenty years of activism and services provided under the Black CAP banner.
ACT UP Montreal 1990-1993 (date unknown) – 120 minutes, colour, english
by Earl Pinchuk
This video was recovered from the home video collection of Montreal film studies scholar Thomas Waugh after the AIDS Activist History Project recently interviewed him. While the transcripts are forthcoming, we wanted to preserve and share this compilation tape of ACT UP/MTL news stories and raw event footage today in order to provide better context for AIDS activist organizing in Montreal in the early 1990s. This two hour video compiled by ACT UP/MTL member Earl Pinchuk is primarily an omnibus compilation of english and french broadcast news stories about ACT UP/MTL actions. Michael Hendricks, a founding member of ACT UP/MTL, notes that compilation tapes of news footage—like that of the Sex Garage kiss-in protest footage in front of police station 25 that this omnibus tape begins with—were often put together by members of ACT UP/MTL to share informally with other ACT UP chapters across North America. Hendricks also notes that the Sex Garage kiss-in protest footage in particular was used by an affinity group within ACT UP/MTL while presenting at the Québec Human Rights Commission hearings into discrimination and violence against gays and lesbians that took place in November 1993. Other content included in the video covers: Lesbians and Gays against Violence (LGV); Prisoner Justice Day protest; anti-violence and anti-police violence demonstrations; women and HIV/AIDS World AIDS Day march; the murder of Joe Rose; queer resilience and nightlife; condoms and sex education in schools; gay serial murders in downtown Montreal; Queer Nation Rose; and the fight to establish Parc l’Espoir (an AIDS memorial park).
Karen Herland, who appears in the video numerous times, also co-wrote an article in 2014 for the Journal of Canadian Studies about the events captured on Pinchuk’s video compilation tape. You can check that journal article out here.
Karate Kids (1990) – 21 minutes, colour, english
by Derek Lamb
This short animation film was funded by the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) in partnership with the non-profit charitable organization Street Kids International (now part of Save the Children), founded by Order of Canada recipients Peter Dalglish (World Health Organization) and Frank O’Dea (Second Cup). It was written and directed by Academy Award winner Derek Lamb, a British transplant whose now ex-wife Janet Perlman helped animate the film. Karate Kids has be translated into more than 25 languages, circulated in over one hundred countries, and was the recipient of the Peter F. Drucker Award for Canadian Nonprofit Innovation in 1993. With such accolades for both the film and its makers, it’s (un)surprising that the film’s content and message was met with anger and hostility from AIDS activists in Canada—notably ACT UP/Montréal.
Karate Kids takes as its premise that there are dangerous men lurking around densely populated markets in the global south who are there to rape your little boys and infect them with AIDS (no, not HIV, but AIDS, because a complex understanding of the disease isn’t relevant here). While the film is utilizing methods of visual instruction for HIV prevention—there’s brief discussion of condoms in the context of “making love” with your opposite-gender partner—the film’s message is muddied by rampant homophobia. Stranger danger is typified in the film by images of a feminine man with a pencil moustache and sun glasses riding around in a dark car with a driver looking for children to entice with money and gifts (ie. rich faggots who want to fuck your children). It just so happens that this “smiling man” in the dark car ensnares a young boy Mario, rapes him, and at the end of the film Mario dies of AIDS. The lesson to be learned: stay away from rich faggots, even if they offer you money or gifts, because they only want to rape you and give you AIDS.
ACT UP/Montréal responded by producing a bilingual pamphlet condemning the film and outlining a number of problems. ACT UP complains that the animation and the attendant comic book based on the same characters and storyline, peddle bigoted stereotypes and middle class morality. Furthermore they note the film trades action and violence—the “Smiling Man” is killed fleeing a lynch mob—while failing to show the realities of how HIV transmission occurs and is prevented in everyday contexts. You can find the full flyer in english and french in our digital Montréal ephemera archive here.
The film can be watched in full on the NFB website, as it continues to circulate today as an AIDS education video—believe it or not. You can also check out the factually suspect (“AIDS virus”) study guide meant to be used by community educators to help supply the factual information missing from the short animation. And if you haven’t had enough already, you can continue watching the misadventures of Karate and his street kid friends in the follow up animation Goldtooth (1994) or watch the promotional videoBrave Ideas (1993) celebrating the animation short and Street Kids International .
No Sad Songs (1985) – 60 minutes, colour, english
by Nik Sheehan
The oral history transcripts produced by our project primarily focus on the AIDS activist years of the late 1980s and 1990s when it became clear that HIV/AIDS was not just a medical, but political crisis. However, the early years of the AIDS crisis provide context for the emergence of activist responses to the stigma, medical neglect, government ineptitude, and overt homophobia that marked the early 1980s. Nik Sheehan’s No Sad Songs is groundbreaking in that it provides an early look at AIDS crisis in Canada from within directly affected communities.
The documentary was co-produced by the AIDS Committee of Toronto who had obtained a $20,000 grant for making an educational video. As noted by Tom Waugh, No Sad Songs is the first AIDS documentary in Canada and set the stage for a cascade of AIDS activist media for the next decade. Importantly, the production of this documentary modelled the artist-community organization partnership that would be emulated in many HIV/AIDS alternative media projects, most notably the public access cable series Toronto: Living With AIDS (1990-1991). The video premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1985.
The full video is available for streaming from HotDocs here.
Please Adjust Your Sex (1988) – 20 minutes, colour, english Another Man (1988) – 3 minutes, colour, english
by Youth Against Monsterz
Toronto-based anarchist theatre collective Youth Against Monsterz produced at least two tapes in the late 1980s that are now available online thanks to the sleuthing of Andy Sorfleet.
Please Adjust Your Sex is a DIY no-budget videotape by and for young people that encourages viewers to engage in safer sex and safer drug use practices while also encouraging them to embrace their desires and reject the patronizing and moralizing media cacophony bombarding them everyday. While the aesthetics are dated, the editing choppy, and the acting goofy, this tape is an important predecessor to the now much more polished DIY youtube videos being made by young people today.
Another Man features many of the same thematics, but smartly wrapped up into a three minute music video featuring the synth sounds of the Mr. Tim Collective and the whip-smart analysis of lesbian activist Chris Bearchell. According to Vtape, Another Man was originally shown on City-TV’s syndicated New Music Show. Gay film scholar Tom Waugh also points out that Another Man was one of three videotapes from Canadian authors included in Canadian John Greyson’s and American Bill Horrigan’s 1990 three VHS compilation package Video Against AIDS (1990). With hundreds of these three tape packages distributed in the US by Video Data Bank and in Canada by Vtape, Another Man reached significant audiences all over North America before online digital video distribution.
For more on Canadian video artists’ responses to the epidemic see Chapter 9, “Anti-Retroviral: A Test of Who We Are,” in Tom Waugh’s Romance of Transgression in Canada: Queering Sexualities, Nations, Cinemas (2006).