Holding on to history

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08 Sep 2015

Holding the Man is currently screening in cinemas across the country. Speaking to Daniel Brace, screenwriter Tommy Murphy says he hopes the film will help combat stigma surrounding HIV.

An Australian classic, Holding the Man is an account of Timothy Conigrave’s 15-year relationship with John Caleo. The best-selling book was published posthumously in 1995, due to Tim’s death from an AIDS-related illness the year before. It was first dramatised as a play in 2005.Tommy Murphy, who worked on the theatre adaptation and wrote the screenplay, admits at first he was nervous at the prospect of bringing Tim’s words to life.

“My nervousness may have been about the fact that I was generationally removed. It’s not immediately my story, nor did I lose anyone close to me in that initial phase of the epidemic,” says Murphy. “I didn’t feel that I was obviously expert in it in any way, or belonged to it. I had to work to break through those barriers — personally and artistically — to be able to bring the story to stage and screen.”

Although lacking the first-hand, lived experience of the AIDS crisis, Murphy found the distance to be a creative benefit. “It was a huge asset creatively,” says Murphy. “Learning about my history became a research task. I think there’s a great curiosity, a great yearning to understand the triumphs as well as the tragedy of AIDS history by younger gay people. And I now know that this curiosity extends beyond the gay community as well.”

Both uplifting and heartbreaking, the story sits atop the changing political landscape of the 1980s, portraying the fight for gay rights aside the emerging AIDS epidemic. It’s a story, says Murphy, which connects the LGBTI community. “We share a perspective on things that is more nuanced than sharing politics or even sharing the same story, but there’s a connection that’s undeniable. I swell up with pride that I belong to this community.”

Helping bring authenticity to the screen was director Neil Armfield and consultant Dr Edwina Wright, who started her career at Fairfield Hospital during the period in which the film is set. An authentic presence is certainly felt when film extra and HIV elder David Menadue appears as an AIDS patient in the ward where John is situated (see box).

Scenes such as that bring home the fact that Holding the Man is an historical drama, based on real events that affected many people working within the HIV sector today. “When I look back at my journey,” says Murphy, “I realise how little I knew about HIV/AIDS history. I think by knowing our history, we can see how far we’ve come and know why today is better than yesterday, and the day before that. I hope [the film] also highlights the stigma that has been a constant of the HIV/AIDS story, because understanding and telling this story will help to encourage conversations and ease the stigma that still exists.”

Holding the Man: a personal perspective by David Menadue

What a relief it was to attend a preview screening of Holding the Man and to find it such a faithful and authentic recreation of what many of us — gay men in particular — experienced with HIV over the last 30 years. The novel has such a treasured status within the community, particularly with HIV-positive people and their friends.

The film tells our story through the eyes of gay activist/playwright/author Timothy Conigrave. With the talents of director Neil Armfield and screenwriter Tommy Murphy it was always likely to be a winner — but I'm so glad it is.

As someone who attended the 1979 National Homosexual Conference Workshop in Fitzroy, I remember the noisy rabble-rousing of the young gay contingent led by Tim and Alison Thorne. They kept us older activists on our toes, just in case we were going to drop the ball on issues such as decriminalisation, sexism and homophobia.

I didn't know Tim's story until the early 1990s when I was in Ward 4 at Fairfield Hospital with John who was gravely ill. I, too, was in a similarly fragile state having developed a MAC infection. I remember the Caleo family visiting frequently.

But to anyone living with HIV at that time, from anywhere in Australia, the film will have resonance: the awful stigma that came with a diagnosis, the potential rejection from family, the constant wondering about who infected who in your relationships; the false hope of supposed good clinical news that turned out to be futile. It is all there.

To those younger HIV-positive people who have wondered what the fuss was about with AIDS or have tried to imagine what those years were like, I hope Holding the Man will be a revelation. We still have a long way to go to conquer HIV stigma and discrimination in the community. Films like Holding the Man — our very own Australian story about the AIDS experience — should go some way to building greater understanding in the broader community.