Blue: Derek Jarman, the AIDS crisis, and the trouble of public narrative

CW: AIDS crisis, homophobia, death, discussion of suicide (paragraph 4)

Blue 1993 is a highly personal and intimate film. It is a heartbreakingly honest account of someone knowingly reaching the end of their life as they slowly and painfully lose the battle against AIDS. The film consists entirely of a single colour, International Klein blue, and a blurred figure is occasionally seen. The script is read aloud over the blue screen.

Jarman knew when creating this work that it would be his last. It reflects his experiences as a gay man living through the AIDS crisis, coping both with personal loss and pain, as well as the wider societal discrimination towards gay men and those suffering with AIDS. The film is often viewed and considered as a narrative for the AIDS crisis, however, this is harmful framing that minimises the humanity of the AIDS crisis and enables people to forget the real human cost and damage. It is not intended to educate people about the crisis. Rather, it is a deeply personal film that functions as both a self-written eulogy for Jarman, and a dedication to his friends who died due to HIV and AIDS related illness.

Jarman was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1986. While HIV and AIDS treatment now is highly effective and enables most patients to live healthy lives, during the height of the AIDS crisis very little was known about the virus, and it was effectively a death sentence for those who got it. State-sanctioned homophobia and the perception of AIDS as a ‘gay plague’ meant that the government funding for research was extremely limited. In Blue, Jarman painfully described how he had to take a mixture of different drugs and regularly spent time in hospital. At one point he comprehensively describes “the side effects of DHPG, the drug for which I have to come into hospital to be dripped twice a day”. This list is extraordinarily long, featuring a barrage of negative side effects such as “irregular heartbeat”, “diarrhoea, bleeding from the stomach or intestine”, and “abnormal kidney functions”. At the end of this painful list, Jarman explains that “in order to be put on the drug you have to sign a piece of paper stating you understand that all these illnesses are a possibility”, and states “I really can’t see what I am to do. I am going to sign it”. Here, Jarman is showcasing his vulnerability, and the harsh predicament he, as an AIDS patient, is in. While this highlights to the audience what AIDS patients have to deal with and the apparent futility of acts and gestures as they have no real choice between dying without treatment, or dying with treatment, Jarman is presenting his own, personal ordeal. While his experience may reflect a wider experience of AIDS patients, this is specifically what he has faced. We should not just view this experience as indicative of a larger population. We must grapple with and fully realise the realities for the individual and the individual experience. 

A LEGACY OF ACTIVISM: THE ACT UP LONDON ARCHIVES, http://www.curzonblog.com/all-posts/2018/4/11/the-history-of-aids-activism.

In an extremely personal way, Jarman explains both the mental and physical hardship faced by AIDS patients at the time. The virus itself is so damaging and painful, and so are the treatments. Jarman openly discusses the feeling of existing without hope and in constant pain, and is honest about his contemplations of suicide. He explains that “we all contemplated suicide. We hoped for Euthanasia. We were lulled into believing Morphine dispelled pain”. Here, Jarman talks about the experiences of AIDS patients, but is specifically talking about his friends. This quote comes after he considers how his friends who died coped with the transition to the afterlife, and after this he speaks directly about his friend, Karl, who took his own life. Jarman asks: “Karl killed himself – how did he do it? I never asked. It seemed incidental”, showing that for him and his friends who were suffering from AIDS, suicide was a relatively normal consideration. This does reflect the experiences of many AIDS sufferers. As Michael E Holtby, a clinician who specialised in HIV explains, he ‘had to face clients’ considering “rational” suicide on a number of occasions’. He notes that often in the case of AIDS patients, ‘suicide can be a rational choice, especially if one faces a painful, stigmatised, and frightening death’. In these cases, it is more a consideration of euthanasia, as those in the later developments of AIDS who are suffering due to complications do often live in extreme pain. While Jarman’s examination of his mental state and his considerations of suicide does reflect a wider experience of AIDS patients, in Blue it is noted as specifically relating to his experiences, and in the memory of his friend Karl. We must acknowledge those who are suffering as individuals, in erasing the individual, we limit our own empathy. We must remember the victims and honour their memory, not let the individual experience be overshadowed by wider historical framing.

For Jarman, death is ever-present. In Blue, he says “I have no friends now who are not dead or dying”, “I hear the voices of dead friends. Love is life that lasts forever. My heart turns to you, David. Howard. Graham. Terry. Paul…”. Jarman brings attention to the heartbreaking loss he has experienced. By specifically naming his friends, he uses Blue as an act of remembrance, as a way to preserve their memory. Jarman’s experience is reflected in the stories of other LGBTQ+ people who were affected by the devastating loss of life caused by the AIDS crisis. As Holtby highlights, ‘for Gay men, a generation [faced] extinction’. It is also important to remember that Trans people and Black and Minority Ethnic people were similarly disproportionality affected. 

In the UK, the first case of AIDS was recorded in 1981. By 1994, at least 8,901 people had died in the UK from HIV/AIDS complications. That is an average of 685 per year since the first diagnosis – an average 2 deaths a day. While Blue does highlight and reflect the tragic amount of death due to the AIDS crisis, Jarman is not intending this reflection to be the central theme. He is specifically creating something as a dedication to his lost loved ones. It is important that we recognise the horrific amount of life lost, and remember that each of those numbers is a real life, a real person, who was mistreated by a homophobic society and system. 

Still from the ‘tombstone’ public health campaign that helped create fear and hysteria.

Blue acts as a self-written eulogy for Jarman, as throughout Jarman prepares for his eventual death. At one point he asks “how did my friends cross the cobalt river, with what did they pay the ferryman?”. He openly discusses the possible passages to the afterlife, and wonders how his friends faced it. In Blue, Jarman knows that he is going to have to follow the path of his friends and face death, likely sooner rather than later. The very last line of Blue says “I place a delphinium, Blue, upon your grave”. Jarman has accepted his eventual death, but marked it with a toxic flower. Placing a poisonous flower on his grave may reflect his own considerations of suicide, or represent the ‘poisonous’ virus which took his life. Woven throughout Blue are thoughts of death, and shows the writer preparing for his life to end. As William Pencak explains, ‘the film recounts the poisoning of blue and the tragedy of life from the perspective of Jarman himself as a dying AIDS patient who is in the process of losing his sight’. It is this poisoning which is finally realised and delivered in the last line, with the placing of a poisonous flower on Jarman’s symbolic grave. This film is a personal reflection and consideration of a long battle against an illness and the inevitable loss. 

Highly significant is the use of the colour blue in this film. Jarman chose to keep the screen entirely blue throughout, as due to his illness he was gradually losing his eyesight, and all he could see was blue. Blue is specifically focused on Jarman’s own experience and perception of events. ‘As the colour “seen” by the blind, blue appears over and over again as a metaphor for the perils and unhappiness of human life’, and Jarman uses it to express his own painful and devastating experiences. By using the colour blue throughout, Jarman forces the viewer to see the world as he does, and recognise his lived experience. 

Jarman compares his personal struggle and the AIDS crisis to other contemporary news. He regularly references the war in Bosnia, which was taking place at the time of writing Blue and dominated headlines. For example, he writes: “The war rages across the newspapers and through the ruined streets of Sarajevo” and “there is a photo in the newspaper this morning of refugees leaving Bosnia”. This can be read as a criticism of how the AIDS crisis was handled in the UK media. As Pencak explains, ‘Blue achieves its power precisely through the equation and juxtaposition of private and public suffering. The AIDS epidemic should move us to intervene – take in visits, protect the helpless, fight the murdering virus – like the slaughter in Bosnia ultimately compelled similar reactions on the part of the NATO powers’. Jarman wants to understand why the AIDS crisis was not treated in the same manner as others. He wants people to be horrified by the human suffering caused by AIDS, in the same way that they are horrified by human suffering caused by war. AIDS was swept under the rug in the British media, and when it was discussed, it was often to the detriment of the victims. Newspapers were prolific in publishing homophobic articles and there were calls to completely re-criminalise homosexuality. The Sun even published a joke that said: ‘A gay man goes home to his parents and tells them he’s got good news and bad news. The bad news is I’m gay. The good news is I’ve got AIDS’. This example shows the general flippant reaction to a horrible crisis which saw thousands of people die.

The LGBTQ+ community was disproportionately impacted by the AIDS crisis, and instead of treating the community with dignity and respect, and caring for those affected, the Thatcher government continued to unfairly target and persecute the LGBTQ+ community. In 1985, Thatcher tried to block public health warnings about AIDS being published, and in 1987 at the Conservative party conference she attacked gay rights – stating that there was no such right to be gay. Thatcher further pushed the erasure of LGBTQ+ identities, with Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which specifically targeted the queer community and stated that local authorities ‘shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality’ or ‘promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. This completely banned schools from even mentioning homosexuality, erasing an entire community from discussion. Jarman challenges the reasons for this and forces the viewer to consider how the media handled the AIDS crisis. He makes the viewer question negative perceptions of queer people, and forces them to consider the AIDS crisis as serious and needing of attention. By placing this criticism alongside his personal story, it shows the impact government and media (particularly negative media framing), has on the individual. The government and the media have blood on their hands for how they mishandled the AIDS crisis. 

Human Rights Campaigner and LGBTQ+ Organiser Peter Tatchell . Image courtesy of BBC News.

Jarman’s discussion of other contemporary news, then, brings these issues to the attention of the viewer. While this can be viewed as a narrative of the AIDS crisis, Pencak, in contrast explains that ‘his diaries indicate, the news of atrocities in former Yugoslavia and terrorist attacks in Britain itself punctuated the days he spent in the hospital and caused him to reflect on the relationship of his personal history, and of those people with AIDS, to the more public events of the world. History, which had meant so much in his other films, is now subordinated to his-story’. Jarman’s consideration of the news is not based in a wider consideration of the AIDS crisis, rather, is reflective of his experiences in hospital. 

Pencak explains, ‘with Blue, nearly the final act in his crusade for justice for homosexuals and people with AIDS, Jarman offered us his own death, described with excruciating detail, told in his own voice by someone who, the ending suggests, will be dead by the time most people view the film’. Blue is a deeply personal reflection of one man’s experiences of losing almost all of his close friends to AIDS, and coming to terms with his own death. While the film is at times reflective of a wider narrative of the AIDS crisis, this is not its primary function. Many deeply personal art works about the individual experience of AIDS are often labelled as narratives of a crisis, but this should be challenged in order to ensure that personal trauma is not erased and forgotten in favour of more palatable histories. To view it as a wider narrative minimises the individual pain and experience. We must remember and honour the individuals lost, not turn them into an unimaginable number and footnote lost in history. Blue is an intimate dedication to the memory of Jarman’s friends, and a self-reflective eulogy for himself.

Photograph: Terry O’Neill/Getty, Copyright: Getty Images

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