Oz Film Festival: Remembering the Man Review
If you stayed to the very end of the final credits of Holding the Man, the 2015 film directed by Neil Armfield and based on Timothy Conigrave’s memoir of the same title, you would have heard the voice of Conigrave himself. He wrote the book while in the later stages of AIDS, and it detailed his fifteen-year relationship with John Caleo, who at the time of Tim’s writing the book, had recently died from complications from the same disease. The book was posthumously published in 1995, and is considered a key first-hand account of the first decade or since AIDS was first identified and made public knowledge, as it was lived by a young couple in Australia. The book has been adapted for the stage as well as for the cinema. This is the documentary version.
Tim and John’s story, on the face of it, is a story that was no doubt duplicated in many other people’s lives, across the world. It’s a story that could be told today, some specifics of time and place notwithstanding, but for the accident of when and where you were born. However, Tim was around to tell this story, eloquently so. Tim and John met as schoolboys in the mid-seventies at the Jesuit-run Xavier College in the Melbourne suburb of Kew. They were attracted to each other from the start, but understandably hesitant as well – with good reason, as archive footage displays some particularly virulent homophobia in Australian society at the time. However, it was obvious to Tim and John’s friends that the two boys were in love, and it was inevitable that they would become a couple. And so they did. John was captain of the college football team, and Tim was an aspiring actor, accepted by NIDA (the National Institute of Dramatic Art, which trained Mel Gibson, Judy Davis, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and others). There was opposition to Tim and John’s relationship from John’s family in particular. At one point, they threatened to take Tim to court for corrupting their son.
About halfway through the film, a huge shadow falls across it. AIDS first became public knowledge in 1981. This fuelled the homophobia we’ve already seen, with accounts of dead people dumped in large plastic bags, mortuary attendants afraid to touch them. One official who is interviewed in archive footage suggests that gay men with AIDS need to be taken out and shot. Tim and John were both diagnosed HIV-positive in 1985, though remained largely healthy until the end of the decade. However then their health began to fail, John’s especially. After his death, Tim, himself unwell, made a pilgrimage to the town in Italy where John’s family originated, and sensing his own life was soon to end, set about writing his book. He completed it shortly before he died, on 18 October 1994, at the age of thirty-four.
This documentary, directed by Nickolas Bird and Eleanor Sharpe, is anchored by Tim’s voice, from a recording he made in 1993 as part of an oral history project intended to capture the stories of a generation of young gay men with HIV. We also see archive footage, home movies and stills, and television excerpts, some dramatic reconstructions (with actors lip-synching to Tim’s narration) and interviews with Tim and John’s friends, several of whom were portrayed in Holding the Man. One of the interviewees is film director Tony Ayres, a friend of Tim’s, who cast him in his 1993 short film A Night Out with the Boys. It’s a very moving story, one of the many millions of such stories from the last three and a half decades, and one that can’t be said to be over yet.
Remembering the Man was shown at the Oz Film Festival in London. It is released in the UK on DVD and Video on Demand by Peccadillo.