Brought to you in partnership with our friends at Peccadillo Pictures
During the late summer of 1985, as AIDS ripped through global communities. A small budget, hastily made film was about to make its debut at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. ‘Buddies’ intended to not only challenge the public debate on a condition still being labelled as the ‘the gay plague’. But also deliver a nuanced exploration of the lives at the centre of its destruction. And the communities that had taken over the role of government in supporting their fellow men and women through the darkest of times. Ultimately delivering a film that quietly and confidently challenged perceptions. However, since its release, ‘Buddies’ has largely vanished into film history. Despite its place as one of the most powerful and influential AIDS films of the past 30 years.
However, on the 9th December ‘Buddies’ finally receives a long overdue restoration and transfer to streaming and blu ray. With 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 finest and most powerful AIDS dramas ever made. A film born of the rage and emotion of a gay community segregated by politicians and people alike.
Reflecting a community in crisis
During the early 1980s, concerns begun to emerge in the United States. As rare form of cancer named Kaposi’s Sarcoma, began to appear in younger people. While simultaneously, an aggressive form of pneumonia began to take root. Many of those concerns centred on communities sitting on the fringes of American society. Leading to a lacklustre and equally unconcerned approach from government. However, for doctors concern continued to grow as cases increased exponentially. Leading in 1982 to the first documented cases of a new condition named Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
By late 1982 AIDS was storming its way through communities from New York to California. With gay male communities in large cities particularly affected. However, political opinion and support from the Reagan administration remained subdued. Allowing the virus to continue unchecked, with little research into its origins. While across the globe AIDS continued its devastating march, from London to Berlin and Paris. Earning it the dangerous and inaccurate title of ‘gay plague’. Something that many ultra right religious groups and commentators seized upon as a way of reversing the gay rights fought for during the 1970s. Equally choosing to ignore the rising cases of AIDS in haemophiliacs, women, children and African nations in favour of anti gay rhetoric and bile.
As a result gay communities and the straight allies who supported them were left to their own devices. A siege mentality developing in a community where those who fought for equality were dying. While those left received little to no support in fighting the spread and possible treatment of the virus.
By the end of 1984, 7,239* cases of AIDS had been reported in the USA alone, with 5,596* deaths (*amfAR). With this total increasing 85% during 1985. Meanwhile, the gay liberation movement started in the early 70s had ground to stop. With public attitudes reversing much of the progress made, while also dividing and segregating LGBTQ people.
During this period of time, media and film had largely remained as quiet as many global governments. And as communities reached breaking point in early 1985. A gay filmmaker named Arthur Bressan, Jr decided film should finally play its part in waking 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 the performances and artistic direction of a film that aimed to shine a light on the AIDS crisis at its heart.
The premise of the film was simple in construct and narrative, while also allowing for a spectrum of social commentary. With many of the films core themes finding their way into more contemporary dramas of later years from Angels in America to 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. Neither men know each other, with David undertaking his first volunteering duties as a ‘Buddy’ to men living with AIDS. While Robert feels unsure but also grateful for someone to talk too.
Both men come from opposing backgrounds, despite sharing the same sexual orientation. With Robert disowned by his parents on coming out. His life since dedicated to campaigning for equality. But now abandoned as those around him fall ill. While David is in a long term monogamous relationship, with close and supportive friends and parents. The ravages of AIDS still distant from his daily life.
However, despite initial differences the two men grow closer through shared stories and discussion. As David discovers himself and a hidden passion for campaigning through Robert. While Robert finds companionship, love and care through the younger gay man.
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 on screen. Providing a unique, eloquent and powerful piece of theatre on film. While equally highlighting the power of individuals and communities to shine a light into the darkest of times.
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. And with ‘Buddies’ managed to bring his personal experience to the screen. 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 struggle for recognition right up to the end. While within David, Bressan captures the confusion, fear and feelings of helplessness inherent in a community fighting for its very survival. A community that was diverse in opinions, values and thoughts. While in turn humanising the subject of AIDS with two characters who embodied the differing social experiences of communities under siege.
In addition to the above, Bressen bravely and boldly challenged social stigma and prejudice. Removing the protective clothing David wore, within the first five minutes of the film, while allowing for human touch, shared laughter and tears. Challenging perceptions of a condition that had led to the exclusion of those suffering its effects, while encouraging humanity. This challenge also corresponded to scenes where Bressan keenly demonstrated that both sex and love were still a part of the lives of those slowly suffering from AIDS, ensuring that human need and emotion was not blanketed by the condition.
While in turn emphasising that hopes, dreams and belonging continued to thrive despite a slowly failing body. In turn tearing off the dangerous media mask of ‘zombie’ like AIDS victims spreading plague. While replacing it with the real people behind the condition. The campaigners, artists, sons, daughters, writers and gardeners who continued to fight up to the very end, no matter what labels society placed upon them.
Equally important was a narrative that placed AIDS into a global context of suffering. With dialogue aimed at reflecting the diversity of those suffering and dying. In turn taking AIDS out of purely gay narrative into something much bigger.
Sadly ‘Buddies’ was to be the final film from Arthur Bressan Jr, who lost his own battle with AIDS in 1987. With his film all but disappearing until being resurrected for public viewing by the Bressan Project in 2018.
But is ‘Buddies’ purely a 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’ offers both a time capsule and a commentary that is still relevant to life today. Cleverly enabling both to exist through a script that was nuanced in its exploration of AIDS, community, culture and experience. With themes of identity, belonging and place co-existing alongside the raw power and emotion of the AIDS epidemic. Asking its audience to reflect on their own role and power in achieving equality and change, while also reflecting the diversity of a LGBTQ community that is often labeled as one homogeneous group. Therefore, still providing important discussion and reflection for modern audiences.
The historical significance of ‘Buddies’ cannot be denied, in not only challenging the damaging social perceptions of AIDS, but also enabling the humanisation of the epidemic. 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 not only continues to deliver emotional impact, but also submerges you in the importance of the continuing fight for equality and change. Consequently providing one of the finest and most important pieces of LGBTQ cinema of the past 35 years.
Director: Arthur J. Bressan Jr.