Remembering The Man ****
Directors: Eleanor Sharpe, Nickolas Bird
Last year, the Australian movie Holding The Man was released in the UK. Based on the memoir of Tim Conigrave, it charts his tragic love story with John Caleo, his high school boyfriend and great love, with whom he spent his whole adult life before they both passed away from AIDS in the early 90s. The book, published posthumously, was a worldwide bestseller and is considered to be one of the seminal literary works to come out of the AIDS Crisis. Now, Remembering The Man has followed; a documentary that gives personal accounts of the lives of Tim and John from friends, relatives and those who loved them.
Tim and John fell in love while at an Australian high school during the 1970s. Despite derision from both their parents, they defy the claims they are “going through a phase” and stay together through graduation, college and beyond. Though their relationship isn’t conventional, the intensity of their love for one another is tested and proved over and over again, until they face its greatest test of all; they are both diagnosed as HIV+. Where many would buckle and fold, Tim and John face their recriminations head on as their friends and (eventually) family rally around them, supporting them over each of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that are continuously thrown in their path.
As documentaries go, this is deliberately poised to pluck the hell out of your heartstrings, but the story of Tim and John is tremendously tragic, so is wholly forgivable. Coincidentally, Tim took part in an audio project recorded by the National Library of Australia, who had wanted to record oral testimonials from the victims of AIDS. This recording now serves as a backdrop for the film, in which he essentially narrates his own life story, without knowing it would ever be used for this purpose, nor how successful his memoirs were destined to become. Though narrated toward the end of his struggle with AIDS, his narration still bears the hallmarks of the confident and self-assured character who came through so vividly in his writing.
What comes across so clearly in this documentary is the normalcy of their relationship and just how vehemently they wanted to be afforded the dignity and status being in a relationship should have given them. As an audience in 2017, we see in Tim and John a couple who needed the rights and support that have only now been fully awarded to LGBT people. They are rejected by their families, unable to get married, denied full access as next of kin and, eventually, Tim is not allowed the same status as family at John's funeral. Throughout the film, their friends repeat over and over again that they had to struggle and battle against limitations that were constantly being thrust upon them, and their friends simply couldn't understand why.
Where Holding The Man comes wholly from Tim's point of view, Remembering The Man benefits from coming from multiple perspectives. My main criticism of the former was that the character of Tim came across somewhat conceited, but this is no longer the case in the latter. Previously, he seemed brash, arrogant and entitled, but in shifting the focus away from him and instead focusing on the situation surrounding their relationship, they become the face of a lost generation of gay men. Tim is just one half of a bigger whole, which is tragically ripped apart, deeply affecting everyone around it, just like the countless other stories that remain untold from this era. And in seeing them objectively as poster-boys for these now silent voices, it's much easier to overcome Tim's flaws, which his friends describe in the film as "hard work".
While this story is presented in the foreground with photographs, interviews and Tim's own narration, the background is also enriched contextually by a plethora of archive footage that gives us glimpses of what it was like to be gay in Australia at the time. With anti-gay activists comparing homosexuality to the murder of babies, it's perhaps easy to see why Tim grew up to become bold and angry at the world that wouldn't recognise his relationship. But now, after the worldwide success of the book and all its adaptations, this documentary planes the story back to its original source, cast against a harsh reality that society was not on their side. Where Holding The Man felt like a glossy reproduction of the story, there comes with Remembering The Man a stark reality-check that this is indeed a true story; that the characters are real people; that neither of them survived to see their story told worldwide. As a result, this incarnation packs a lot more punch.
OUT ON DVD AND ON DEMAND 12TH JUNE 2017.