A new Australian documentary about the life of Tim Conigrave and the 15-year love affair that inspired his memoir Holding the Man.
Tim Conigrave and John Caleo as teenagers; image via atomawards.org
Seemingly, new Australian films based on Timothy Conigrave’s 1995 memoir Holding the Man are like buses: you can wait ages for one, then two come along (almost) at once.
Directed by Neil Armfield, Tommy Murphy’s feature film adaptation of the book was released on 27 August to widespread acclaim and respectable box office success. Now comes Waterbyrd Filmz’s poignant documentary Remembering the Man, directed by Nickolas Bird and Eleanor Sharpe, and screening this week at the Adelaide Film Festival – its world premiere on Sunday 18 October was held 21 years to the day since Conigrave's death.
The documentary has already been nominated for an ATOM Award; a limited cinema release is planned for 2016.
Conigrave, an actor, playwright and AIDS activist, died in October 1994, shortly after finishing Holding the Man (which was potentially going to be called Gravity: The Attraction of Heavenly Bodies, until his friends convinced him to change the title). Published posthumously, the memoir details Conigrave’s 15-year relationship with the great love of his life, John Caleo, from their early, awkward flirtations in high school to their final, tragic parting when Caleo succumbed to an AIDS-related illness on Australia Day, 1992.
Five years in the making, the documentary covers similar ground, and features a wealth of archival material – including still photographs, student films, television footage and home movies – as well as interviews with Conigrave and Caleo’s friends, carers and colleagues.
Though they apparently gave the production their blessing, the men’s families are notable by their absence.
Remembering the Man is narrated by Conigrave himself, using audio taken from a 1993 interview conducted by James Waites as part of the Australian response to AIDS oral history project. Coupled with some occasionally frank reflections by the assembled interviewees, and the cumulative impact of a carefully ordered collage of archival images, the result is insightful, touching, and revealing.
For viewers familiar with Conigrave’s book, the film shows certain events – such as the dinner party where he and Caleo first kiss – in a new light. Other events are told in a way that suggest that his stories were already well rehearsed by the time of Waites' interview. The documentary also touches on subjects Conigrave omitted from Holding the Man, such as his rare sexual adventures with women, and provides additional insights into his and Caleo's complementary personalities.
‘John could be shy and I think he kind of hid himself away a little bit, but he didn’t have to with Tim,’ one friend observes. Another says of Conigrave: ‘He loved making fusses. He lived in a kind of great dust-cloud of fuss – which John was always cleaning up!’
In the film’s second half, scenes from one of Conigrave’s handful of plays, Soft Targets – a documentary theatre response to the AIDS crisis staged by Griffin Theatre Company in 1986 – also feature, and are remarkably moving.These are contrasted with public condemnation from the likes of the Reverend Fred Nile, and the then-Mayor of Thuringowa in Queensland, Dan Gleeson, who called for people with HIV to be ‘lined up against the wall and shot’. Nor does the documentary shy away from the cruel realities of the time: how young men dying from HIV-related illnesses fought against the virus, and the toll such struggles took on them.
Extracts from television broadcasts depicting the average Australian’s hatred of ‘poofters’ in the 1970s, and shocking newspaper headlines from the early years of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, serve to remind us what was at stake for gay men in this period. They also reinforce just how remarkable Caleo and Conigrave’s enduring relationship was for its time – and how supportive and protective their friends were of them.
Editing is sharp, judiciously overlaying images and reminiscences, and when appropriate, cutting from speaker to speaker to create a rich, substantive retelling of the past.
The documentary is not without its flaws – the soundtrack is occasionally intrusive, and the decision to use sometimes stilted, soft-focus re-enactments to animate what would otherwise be a fairly static assemblage of still images and talking heads does jar at times (though the rationale behind such sequences is entirely understandable) – but overall, Remembering the Man is both powerful and engaging; a fitting tribute to Tim Conigrave, the author of an ur-text of the AIDS pandemic, and his husband, John Caleo.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Remembering the Man
Dir. Nickolas Bird & Eleanor Sharpe
Australia, 2015, 111 mins
Adelaide Film Festival
15-25 October 2015