Reviewed by GREG KING
Directors: Nickolas Bird and Eleanor Sharpe.
Timothy Conigrave’s memoir Holding The Man, published posthumously in 1994, is one of the touchstones of queer culture here in Australia. Widely regarded as a seminal novel about being gay, love and life in the time of AIDS, the novel was a poignant story about his long time love for John Caleo. The pair first met when they were schoolboys at the prestigious Xavier College in Melbourne in the 1970s and began a relationship that lasted some sixteen years. The story about a pair of star crossed lovers also dealt with the battle against prejudice and parental disapproval, as well as the spectre of AIDS. Holding The Man has since been adapted into a successful stage play and an award winning film. But this revealing and lovingly made documentary celebrates the love story between Conigrave and Caleo and fills in many of the blanks and gives us more insights into the relationship and the time.
Remembering the Man comes from veteran director Nickolas Bird (a documentary filmmaker whose works have screened on television) and frequent collaborator Eleanor Sharpe (Ballroom Rules, etc), who spent five years assembling the film. They have drawn upon a wealth of previously unseen material to shape this touching tribute. They have used a deft mix of archival footage, home movie footage, student films, intimate personal photographs to chart this rich emotional journey. There are also affecting candid interviews with some of the people who knew both Tim and John, and who are respectful of their memory. Bird and Sharpe also use some dramatic reenactments to animate otherwise dry anecdotes, but ironically some of these reenactments are among the film’s weakest moments. While both the Conigrave and Caleo families have given their approval for the film, they do not appear on screen, and their absence is felt.
But even more revealing and poignant is hearing Conigrave’s words in his own voice. Bird and Sharpe have been able to access some rare recordings made in 1993 by James Waites who was compiling interviews for the Australian Responses To AIDS Oral History Project, a project aimed at capturing the thoughts of a generation of young gay Australian males who were dying from AIDS. One of those young men interviewed was Conigrave and his deeply personal narration lends the material an eerie quality. The recordings were kept at the National Library of Australia and have rarely been heard.
There is also some footage of readings of Conigrave’s play Soft Targets, which dealt with the AIDS crisis, shot during a 1986 production being staged by the Griffin Theatre. There is some archival footage of anti-gay marches, the vitriol laden invective from the likes of the reverend Fred Nile, and the heated protests that give us a strong sense of the time and insight into the volatile politics surrounding homosexuality in the 70s and 80s when being gay was a criminal offence.
Remembering The Man offers an even more revealing record of Conigrave’s life than his own novel, and anyone who has seen Holding The Man in any of its incarnations will find this documentary a wonderfully frank and moving companion piece.