There's nothing quite like hearing someone tell their own tale. The nuances of their voice, their choice of phrase, and the spaces left by their silence can all say as much as their actual words. That's one of the reasons that the recent spate of celebrity-focused documentaries — think Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Listen to Me Marlon and Amy — worked so well. Hearing Cobain, Brando and Winehouse offer candid insights into their lives, loves, hopes and dreams via old tapes and videos didn't just serve up the usual biographical information. It also gave audiences a genuine glimpse into their minds.
Courtesy of audio recordings made in 1993 as part of an oral history project that endeavoured to preserve the stories of AIDS-afflicted Australians, Remembering the Man makes use of a similar method. Directed by Nickolas Bird and Eleanor Sharpe, the documentary charts the relationship of Timothy Conigrave and John Caleo. Yes, their names should sound familiar. Actor and writer Conigrave already shared his thoughts and experiences in his best-selling memoir Holding the Man, which was then turned into an acclaimed theatre production, as well as a tear-inducing film of the same name.
Boasting Conigrave's warm, impassioned tones as its centrepiece, Remembering the Man revisits familiar details — how he met Caleo at their Catholic high school, the ins and outs of their 15-year romance, and the impact of their respective HIV diagnoses. Yet nothing about the retelling feels repetitive or tired. Even the most well-worn tidbits come to life through Conigrave's frank remembrances, accompanied by a moving collage of photographs and archival footage, and fleshed out by to-camera interviews with many of the duo's friends.
The use of Conigrave's voice aside, it may sound like a fairly typical documentary — and, in many ways it is. And yet even when the movie is simply cutting between talking heads and clumsy re-enactments, there's no denying the intimacy and emotion on display. That's not just a result of the over-emphasised score that stresses every powerful moment, either. If Holding the Man recounted the official version of Conigrave and Caleo's time together, Remembering the Man is more akin to hearing off-the-record bits and pieces, warts and all.
Of course, as anyone already familiar with their tale will know, their story isn't theirs alone. Shining a light on the difficulties and prejudices of '80s-era Australia as it reacted to the AIDS epidemic is as much a part of the couple's legacy as their undying affection for each other. Accordingly, the film becomes a record not only of Conigrave's testimony and the enduring love that shaped his life, but also of a devastating moment in Australian history. Remembering its titular figure through his own words isn't Remembering the Man's only feat; remembering the many tragedies of the time proves just as powerful.