Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB. Australia, 2015. Screenplay by Nickolas Bird, Eleanor Sharpe, Dennis K. Smith. Cinematography by Ellery Ryan. Produced by Nickolas Bird, Eleanor Sharpe. Music by Dale Cornelius. Production Design by Kirsten O’Loughlin. Costume Design by Oriana Merullo. Film Editing by Nickolas Bird, Eleanor Sharpe, Tony Stevens.
The love story of Timothy Conigrave and John Caleo was memorialized in Conigrave’s memoir Holding The Man, published just days after his death from AIDS at the age of 34 and a key text in the gay rights and AIDS activist movements in Australia. The book eventually inspired adaptation to stage and a somewhat successful feature film the same year that this documentary was produced; for anyone who saw the Neil Armfield film, this touching documentary gives more context to both mens’ lives and their relationship using film footage, photographs and the testimonies of friends and family. It details how Conigrave and Caleo first met in school, fell in love and stayed deeply linked to each other despite some impressive opposition: Caleo came from a traditional Italian family and was a sports jock in school, eventually becoming a chiropractor, while Conigrave had dreams of stardom and pursued acting at drama school before the AIDS epidemic inspired him to writing and activism. At first, homophobic parents try to keep them apart but they eventually leave their native Melbourne for Sydney, where they experience a period of separation before their coming back together is accompanied by the news that they are both HIV positive. Caleo fell ill and died first, but as tragic and heartbreaking as the story is, this film is lifted into something powerful by the emotionally generous interview subjects, all of whom seem to love remembering their late friends, thinking of Tim and John’s love affair as something inevitable and precious that they were very grateful to witness. That the film sees these two beautiful people, taken away so early and robbed of so much, as a fleeting moment in time and not just a statistic, makes it cherishable, more than compensating for the film’s only true error of choosing to include dramatic re-enactments that feel stagy and unconvincing.