Reclaiming Their Humanity

HOLDING THE MAN (15) Directed by Neil Armfield, with Ryan Corr, Craig Stott, Geoffrey Rush, Guy Pearce. Australia 2015 127 mins.

Australia is in the news for all the wrong reasons - the Federal Government removing references to the Great Barrier Reef, Tasmanian old growth forests and Kakadu National Park from a UN climate change report, and two asylum seekers self-immolating in one or other of the holding facilities (jails) on Manus Island and Nauru. One of these was a 21 year old Somali girl. The desperation that would drive such a person to this kind of act cannot be imagined. Are these things linked, and what does this have to do with an Australian film set in the 1970s and 80s?

The film is about two young men, lovers, who have AIDS. One, Tim Conigrave, writes about their experience, which becomes a best selling book. This film is based on the book, and both film and book are fairly explicit.

It's perhaps hard for anyone who wasn't there to imagine the hysteria that surrounded the AIDS epidemic in the early 80s, and that hysteria didn't just affect Australia. To be dying of an incurable disease is bad enough, but to be de-humanised, ostracised, made into some kind of symbol of retribution for the sins of humankind, to be rendered 'other', literally untouchable, and that all this actually occurred, beggars belief. If Tim Conigrave could have looked a mere 20 years into his future and seen that he and his lover could have got married (in many countries, though not quite yet Australia), that their illness could have been managed, that they could have led productive lives, he may not have been able to believe it.

Apart from being a writer, Tim Conigrave was also an actor, who attended the prestigious National Institute of Dramatic Art, alumni including Mel Gibson, Cate Blancett and other internationally famous film stars. (Interestingly, Antony LaPaglia, Guy Pearce and Geoffrey Rush, who play supporting roles here, didn't attend NIDA.)

This period, the 70s and 80s, was the great flowering of the arts in Australia (don't laugh). This was the time of Peter Weir, Fred Schepisi, the first Mad Max films, Neighbours...

OK, some good, some not so, but the hope, the expectation was sky high. After a fairly brief interregnum when the Labor Government of Gough Whitlam, a regime of lovable galahs, was dismissed, effectively in a coup in all but name, by the Governor General, the Queen's representative (if you sense this is still a pretty raw wound, you'd be right) in 1975, normal service was resumed with Bob Hawke and Labor in 1983 and Australia found its voice.

What was that voice saying?

America was founded on the basis of a principle - religious freedom. What was the principle on which Australia was founded? A giant, continent sized prison settlement - it's hard to be proud of that. And hard to make that the basis of a national artistic expression which we can export to the rest of the world. What to do?

When looking outside doesn't yield anything promising what's left but to look inside. And this is what Australia did.

Australia created an artistic tradition based on how you feel. Soap Opera as imagined by Americans is a species of melodrama, everything is larger than life. Soap as imagined by Australians is a unique beast, everything internal is made explicit. Feelings usually hidden are revealed. In a way, it's less than life and remarkably consoling for all that.

Australia has given the world an art form that has nothing to say beyond itself. It is expression as self-obsession.

You might be Australian, you twit, but that's harsh. Uncalled for.

Let me finish. This film seems to encapsulate precisely this argument in microcosm. The success of Holding the Man really depends on the performance of Ryan Corr as Tim Conigrave. His character wrote the book so, given the book's frame of reference, it's inevitable it will be from his point of view. What's strong in his performance is that we can see him thinking through his experience. What could be seen as weak, and it's not really the performance, the apparent weakness is in the book too, is that he doesn't go beyond that experience to something larger, more universal.

And yet the film achieves something universal, almost against its best intentions, in spite of itself.

The art critic, Robert Hughes, from a slightly older generation than Conigrave, was moved to write, in a break from his usual speciality, an influential, in Australia at least, and entertaining history of the Australian convict experience, The Fatal Shore. The colourful horrors he elucidates, in places like Port Arthur and Norfolk Island, were news to most of the population of Australia when it was published in 1986.

To me, the experience of the two young men mirrors that of the convicts. The horror of their sentence, their de-humanisation, their ostracism, their being made a symbol of some kind of divine retribution, is a modern re-creation of the founding of Australia.

And Australia seems just as adept at sweeping all this under the carpet, of only looking inside, at how they personally feel, now as they were in the 1980s, as they were in the Nineteenth Century.

An artistic tradition based on feeling isn't enough to confront a country with the true extent of what they've done in the past. And what they are doing right now.

This is a very honest film, based on a very honest book, which was written when its author felt he had little left but honesty. He sets out to reclaim his humanity, and he succeeds in reclaiming something important for us all. He transcends the artistic tradition in which he writes in a way that is quite breathtaking.

Paul Corcoran