Starring: Geoff Edholm, David Schachter Director: Arthur J. Bressan Jr. Country: USA
It’s amazing to think that a landmark film like Buddies, the very first movie to fully explore the AIDS Crisis on screen way back in 1985, has never been released in the UK. Now, 34 years later, Peccadillo Pictures are releasing a remastered version, which depicts a beautiful story of friendship in the worst situation imaginable. And it’s just as moving as it sounds.
David (Schachter) is a 25 year old gay man in a monogamous relationship. Having read about a charitable organisation that buddy-up volunteers with gay men who are dying alone of AIDS, he signs up, wanting to help someone in need. Assigned to Robert (Edholm), he meets a man abandoned by his partner in the final stages of his life. Together, they talk about their lives, loves and the politics of AIDS, all the while forging a deep friendship against the advice of the charity. As Robert gets sicker, David wants to do more and more to help him and other people with AIDS, but there’s little he can do to change the outcome for his newfound friend.
An Early Frost (1985) is often cited as the first film to explore AIDS, but Buddies was released earlier in the same year. Where the former pussy-footed around showing the stark realities of the disease (it was a TV movie made for primetime), the latter had no problem depicting the truth of its impact medically, emotionally and politically. Which is probably the reason it didn’t find a major release, because it would take four more years before a movie about the pandemic would find major cinematic release in Longtime Companion (1989). But in making the choice to write this essentially as a duologue – the faces of other supporting cast are never actually shown – this is a deeply personal depiction of the disease.
Schachter and Edholm are beautifully nuanced in their performances. Geoff Edholm’s Robert plays out the emotional rollercoaster of his illness, going through the stages of grief for his own life as he lies dying in a hospital bed. Schachter is at first reserved, but the longer he spends with his buddy, the more his anger is ignited that someone so young can be going through such misery. The film is passionate in its anger (both Edholm and director Bressan would die within four years of the film’s release) but tender in its humanity. The film begins and ends with lists of names of those killed by the disease, reminding us that this is just one story in hundreds of thousands.
To describe Buddies as a tear-jerker implies an intent of emotional manipulation by the director, but created at a time before AIDS had been seen on screen whatsoever, I think he can be forgiven for deliberately plucking at a few heart-strings. Even now, the AIDS Crisis is a delicate subject that remains raw and difficult for many people to watch, but to hear this voice from the middle of its chaos that hasn’t been heard for over three decades is nothing short of heartbreaking poignancy.
Similar films to explore: Philadelphia (1993), Longtime Companion (1989), Parting Glances (1986), How To Survive A Plague (2012), The Normal Heart (2014), An Early Frost (1985), 120 BPM (2017), And The Band Played On (1993), We Were Here (2010), Holding The Man (2015), Angels In America (2003)