There is a profound sense of anger that grows in you when you consume films as an LGBT+ person. You find that there are so few films that feature someone like you in them, and most of the ones that do are created by straight people who fetishize you or your community’s struggles. LGBT+ filmmakers who are given a platform are also rarely funded unless they create films which pander to a predominantly straight audience. It becomes exhausting never to see yourself on screen unless it is to die as a martyr for the larger cisgender, heterosexual population. This is why Arthur Bressan Jr.’s Buddies serves as such a well-praised pillar of queer cinema. And now, with its recent release on DVD and Blu-ray for the very first time, it is available to those whose lives it will no doubt change.
Buddies is widely regarded as the first film about the AIDS crisis, and yet it seems to be widely unknown. I had only heard of the film through another patron of gay film twitter, and even after I became interested in it, it was impossible to find a platform for me to actually watch the damn thing. When finally presented with the opportunity to do so, I only knew what it seems most people did: it was a movie about AIDS. But to reduce it to that does not do the film any justice. For a lot of people, the mention of an “AIDS movie” – it feels as though AIDs has become its own genre at this point – elicits a groan. Portrayals of AIDs in media often cements the idea that AIDS is a punishment against gay men for not assimilating into straight society, as opposed to actually indicting the larger systemic causes at play which caused, and exacerbated the AIDs crisis. One only needs to look as far as Bohemian Rhapsody to see this execution in full effect. It is emotionally exhausting to go through this ordeal just for a little representation, so it makes sense that the idea of a film about AIDS, created by a gay man or not, can feel almost daunting to take on.
Buddies is of an entirely different breed. It is about the AIDs crisis, and it is also a film about love, solidarity, and strength. The first of its kind, Buddies is not a retreading, and neither is it cashing in on a masochistic guilt that mainstream society feeds on in order to feel like they’re “closer” to minorities. It was created before mainstream society was even paying attention to the extent of the death of gay men around them – or even if they were, they most certainly were indifferent to our struggles. In this sense, it was created explicitly for those suffering directly from the AIDS crisis – whether it be gay men, their friends or their families.
Buddies follows the relationship of David Schachter (David Bennett) and Robert Willow (Geoff Edholm). David is a “buddy” for Robert, who is in the hospital suffering from AIDS. He spends time talking with him and keeping him company even when almost everyone else is too terrified to get close for fear of being infected. The first time we see David, in fact, is when he cautiously enters the hospital room covered head to toe in gloves, a hospital apron, and a mask. Throughout the entire film, we watch as David becomes less on guard, both of Robert and of gay culture in general. This relationship takes precedence over everything else in the entire film. Although David talks of his boyfriend and Robert discusses his friend Sylvia, every character other than them is constantly is in the periphery — they remain faceless. Everybody is edged out as David and Robert grow closer and learn from one another. The only other face we see, through literally projected memories, is of Robert’s former lover Edward.
As David grows closer to Robert, he begins to imagine himself in Edward’s place as the lines between lover and friend become increasingly blurred. To most gay men, these lines feel arbitrary – an expectation placed there by straight society, used as yet another way to shame gay men for being too “promiscuous.” For instance, David explains to Robert that he doesn’t understand why there has to be a gay pride, or why we should flaunt our sexuality. Why can’t we just be normal?
The answer is, of course, because we are not. Even though David had parents who readily accepted him as gay while Robert had parents who kicked him out of their home for being gay, Robert is far more outspoken, proud, and resilient in his gayness. Gay sexuality is thoroughly political — whether you want it to be or not. We spend a majority of this film simply watching these two men have conversations like this, against the backdrop of a death bed. We watch as David goes from sheepishly telling Robert about his lover, to bringing in tapes of pornography to his ward and helping him masturbate. They discuss love, sex, and pride. They get angry, frustrated, and sad. But they also laugh, reminisce, and smile.
While it is understandable that films about AIDS can be upsetting and exhausting to watch, it does not mean they do not deserve our attention, especially ones as honest and impactful as Buddies. This film succeeds in being angry yet gentle, despairing yet hopeful. It understands the complicated feelings and pain involved in death and dying because everyone involved lived it. This film is not masochistic misery porn created for the sole purpose of making the audience feel awful about themselves or gay people. While every film made about the AIDS crisis by straight people feels like a guilty apology given years too late, films like Buddies that were created by and for gay people feel like stories of solidarity, love and strength – whether it is to survive, or to live on. But either way, we fight.
Buddies is also being released for Home Entertainment for the very first time on both DVD and Blu-ray on December 9th.