During the late summer of 1985, as AIDS tore through global communities, a small budget, hastily made film made its debut at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. Buddies was not only to challenge public debate but deliver insight into the lives of those affected. Its premiere converging with individuals being forced to take the role of the state in caring for their friends, partners, and lovers. A small budget film quietly and confidently challenging perceptions and ideas while giving voice to isolated communities. However, since its release, Buddies has vanished into film history. Its place as one of the most powerful and influential AIDS films of the past 30 years diminished.
However, on the 9th of December, Buddies will finally receive a long-overdue restoration and transfer to streaming and blu ray. Our friends at Peccadillo Pictures bringing this truly groundbreaking film back into public view. So join us as we take a look back at one of the most powerful AIDS dramas ever made. A film born of the rage and emotion of a gay community segregated by politicians and fear.
A community in crisis
During the early 1980s, concerns begun to emerge in the United States. A rare form of cancer named Kaposi’s Sarcoma appearing in young people and adults. While simultaneously, an aggressive form of pneumonia began to take root in selected communities. Many of those initially affected by these two new illnesses sat on the fringes of American society. The response lacklustre and unconcerned as governments backed away from any meaningful action. However, for many doctors, concerns were beginning to grow. And in 1982, the first documented cases of a new condition named Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) were registered.
By late 1982 AIDS was already out of control in major US cities ranging from New York to San Francisco, where it was clear that gay male communities, ethnic minorities and street workers sat at the centre of many cases. But, despite this growth the Reagan administration remained silent. The lack of any meaningful action allowing the virus to continue unchecked, with little research into its origins, causes and effects. Meanwhile, across the globe, AIDS cases were also begining to multiply, from London to Berlin and Paris. The global lack of government concern coupled with homophobia and discrimination. Many public bodies condoning and encouraging language such as gay plague. With far right religious groups and commentators seizing the opportunity to reverse the gay rights achieved during the 1970s. Once more returning to conversations rooted in gay panic, and the protection of children.
The result of this lack of concern and policy was a gay community and their straight allies left to their own devices. A siege mentality was developing in a community where those who had fought for equality were rapidly dying with little global concern—those left receiving little or no support in fighting the spread of the virus or possible treatments. By the end of 1984, 7,239 cases of AIDS had been reported in the USA alone, with 5,596 deaths (amfAR). Numbers increasing by 85% during 1985 alone. Meanwhile, the gay liberation movement that started in the early 70s had all but ground to stop—negative public attitudes reversing much of the progress made while also dividing and segregating LGBTQ people.
During this time, media and film largely remained silent, fearing to raise its head as discrimination increased. Many celebrities and personalities of the time were directly affected by the march of AIDS and held in the closet due to homophobic attitudes. But, just as communities reached a breaking point in early 1985, one gay filmmaker, Arthur Bressan, Jr, planned to wake up a nation.
A groundbreaking play on screen
Filming started on Buddies in May 1985, on a shoestring budget of $27,000. With director Arthur Bressan, Jr creating what was, in essence, a two-man play, allowing for a shooting and editing schedule of only four months. The filming process reflecting the urgency of the social climate surrounding it. While also embedding this urgency into both performances and artistic direction, shining a light on the AIDS crisis at its heart. The film’s premise was simple in construct while also allowing for a spectrum of social commentary. In fact, many of the films core themes would later find their way into both Angels in America and The Normal Heart.
Opening in a New York hospital, 25-year-old David (David Schachter) enters a room in full protective robes. His surgical mask, apron and gloves symbolising the fear and apprehension surrounding AIDS in the early 1980s. David is there to visit Robert (Geoff Edholm), a 32-year-old gay man from California who is alone and angry as AIDS ravishes his body. His life campaigning for equality only resulting in a society where gay men are isolated in their time of need. At this point, neither men know each other. David undertaking his first volunteering duties as a ‘Buddy’ to men living with AIDS, while Robert remains sceptical but grateful for someone to talk too.
Both men come from opposing backgrounds, despite sharing the same sexual orientation. Robert disowned by his parents for coming out. His life since dedicated to campaigning for equality, but now abandoned as those around him fall ill. Meanwhile, David is in a long term monogamous relationship, with close and supportive friends and parents, the ravages of AIDS distant from his daily life. However, despite their initial differences, the two men grow close through shared stories and discussion. David discovering himself and a hidden passion for campaigning through Robert. While at the same time, Robert finds companionship, love and care through David.
This open and freeform narrative allows both Robert and David to explore the social, political and human themes of AIDS in mid 80s America. Within a film that steers clear of muddying its narrative with multiple characters. The result a unique, eloquent and powerful piece of theatre on film.
Challenging and changing perceptions
Arthur Bressan, Jr played witness to the early days of the AIDS outbreak and its effect on the individuals and communities surrounding him. Buddies brings those very experiences to the screen; a personal diary of his thoughts, anger and campaigning spirit. The passion for equality and justice he held so dear, encapsulated within the character of Robert. A dying man who not only maintains his belief in LGBTQ equality at all costs but also embodies the bravery of those who would continue their fight right up to the end. While within David, Bressan captures the confusion, fear and feeling of helplessness inherent in a community fighting for its very survival. The resulting screenplay not only humanising the subject of AIDS but reflecting the different social experiences of a community under siege.
In addition to the above, Bressen bravely and boldly challenges social stigma and prejudice. The removal of David’s protective clothing within the first five minutes a clear statement of fear versus care. That one action allowing for human touch shared laughter and tears. But, Bressen doesn’t stop there, also keenly demonstrating that both sex and love were still a part of the lives of those slowly dying from AIDS. Their rights in receiving care and dignity paramount; their life, love and sexuality not airbrushed away.
This political streak ensured Buddies tore apart the media mask of ‘zombie’ like AIDS victims spreading plague. Replacing it with the real people behind the disease; campaigners, artists, sons, daughters, writers and lovers. Each one individual, each one loved and each one human.
Sadly Buddies was the final film by Arthur Bressan Jr, who lost his own battle with AIDS in 1987. His urgent and essential film all but disappearing until being resurrected for public viewing by the Bressan Project in 2018. But, is Buddies a mere time capsule of some of the darkest years in LGBTQ history? Or does it continue to carry relevance and insight for modern audiences?
In essence, Buddies is both a time capsule and call to arms still relevant today. Its enduring power held in a script that explored AIDS, politics, community, culture and experience. With themes of identity, belonging and place co-existing alongside the raw power and emotion of the AIDS epidemic. In turn, asking its audience to reflect on their own role and power in achieving equality and change in a diverse LGBTQ community often labelled as one homogeneous group.
Meanwhile, the historical significance of Buddies cannot be denied its story not only challenging the damaging social perceptions of AIDS but also enabling the humanisation of the epidemic. A full eight years before the film, Philadelphia was hailed as a groundbreaking piece of cinema. Watching Buddies today is like watching a sublime piece of theatre. Its power equal to that of its debut in 1985, as you are swept away in a divine character study that delivers emence emotional impact. But, more than that Buddies embodies the important fight for equality and change; a fight still not complete. Bressen’s film asking us all to ensure community, togetherness and a fight for justice continue to sit at the heart of LGBTQ life.
Director: Arthur J. Bressan Jr.