Documents of the HIV Epidemic in 1980s Britain
AIDS: The Unheard Tapes and Derek Jarman's Blue
This week I watched the three-part BBC documentary AIDS: The Unheard Tapes, which tells the story of the HIV epidemic in Britain from the early 1980s until the mid 1990s as experienced by the gay community. If you’re UK-based you can still watch it on BBC iplayer. It’s an extraordinarily moving documentary, which draws on recordings of personal testimonies from two of the British Library’s archives: The Hall-Carpenter Oral History Project and HIV/AIDS Testimonies.
The recordings are in-depth life stories in which the interviewees were asked to reflect on their life experiences: childhood, education, family, work, their social lives, communities and their relationships. They captured the rich texture of gay men’s lives in vivid detail in audio autobiographies. As with all oral history recordings, everyone was interviewed in the knowledge that their words would one day be publicly accessible.
I’ve been completely knocked for six by this documentary. Partly because of the frank honesty of the men’s testimonies and their disarmingly brave resignation in the face of certain death. And partly because someone had the foresight to capture their testimonies at the time and to memorialise these men with dignity. At their most vulnerable, as they were dying, most AIDS sufferers were treated as pariahs. The inhumanity of it is horrifying.
The knowledge of HIV had to be built from scratch, and the recordings capture the uncertainty and emotion of the time, when no-one knew what the future would hold. There are certainly resonances with the situation at the start of the recent Covid pandemic. Minus the homophobia.
It has made me think again about the British artist and film-maker Derek Jarman. And in particular his 1993 film Blue. Those of you who were at the Art Salon earlier this year when I talked about Jarman will no doubt remember me mentioning this film. Jarman died aged 52 in 1994 from an AIDS-related condition. He had been diagnosed as HIV positive in 1987, and very bravely announced his diagnosis publicly. He talked openly about how he became an outcast and was accused of mass murder.
In the last stages of his illness Jarman lost his vision and was only able to see the colour blue. This inspired him to make the film Blue, which was released four months before he died. The visuals of the film are simply the colour blue, nothing else. It is set to a soundtrack of Jarman’s thoughts, some of which he speaks, some of which an actor speaks. The words are a beautifully poetic combination of his experiences as a gay man living with and dying from HIV, and dream-like sequences where he wanders off into his imagination.
I find it incredibly powerful as an artwork. It’s poignant, painful, dreamy, sad and funny. All of those things. If you haven’t watched it, I would encourage you to find an hour, lie on the sofa, and let it wash over you as you listen:
Thank you for the reminder about Jarman, there’s a line in Blue where he narrates ‘it’s the uncertainty’ referring to the worst bit about the HIV virus, and that resonates with the early days of COVID. I’ve not watched the documentary on iPlayer yet, but I’m looking forward to it how I’ve re-listened to Blue.
Jarman's voice is so...something. Not quite sure how to describe it. Like a voice in a dream? Just listened to a bit of it. Will need to come back later and spend some time with it.