Courtesy of New Line Cinema/Vinegar Syndrome

This cult 80s queer film was the first to capture the AIDS crisis

"Buddies" star David Schachter recalls the making of the New York-set movie, and its groundbreaking message.

by Jack King
29 November 2019, 2:25pm

Courtesy of New Line Cinema/Vinegar Syndrome

On May 9th 1988, at an ACT UP demonstration in Albany, New York, queer film critic and AIDS activist Vito Russo delivered his "Why We Fight" speech – an explosive statement of defiance on behalf of the AIDS-affected community; an insistence that they would not stop fighting for their lives. His 1800 word, 11 minute declaration echoed the anger of thousands of people across America, predominantly gay men, facing a genocide of neglect, inertia, and apathy. “If I’m dying from anything,” Russo announced, “I’m dying from the President of the United States.”

Three years prior, in 1985, President Ronald Reagan had publicly recognised the AIDS epidemic for the first time. By that point, more than 16,000 American people had been infected; around half had already perished. Artie Bressan, an activist and filmmaker who referred to himself as a pornographer by trade, wrote Buddies in April of that year. It would be the first ever on-screen representation of the AIDS crisis.

An intimate, two-handed character study, Buddies follows a naive gay college graduate, David, who volunteers through an unnamed health organisation -- based on the Larry Kramer-founded Gay Men’s Health Crisis -- to befriend and visit a dying AIDS patient. That man's name is Robert, a hot Californian vagabond played by Geoff Edholm. The film is a cocktail of compassion, rage, and tragedy; simultaneously a delicate romance and the coming of age of an activist.

David Schachter, who plays David in Buddies, was seventeen when he met Artie. It was a decade post-Stonewall, on a gorgeous spring night in the heart of New York City’s Greenwich Village. The crisis was yet to hit. “We cruised each other and went home,” David says factually, and with a faint glimmer of nostalgia. “I went back to his apartment and we were on and off that summer. It was lovely. We had a cooling off in the fall, but remained very close friends and saw each other for the next six years until we made the film together.”

Other characters appear on the periphery of Buddies -- quite literally, lingering to the side of the frame or through the haze of a shower curtain -- but the picture is predominantly occupied by the two leads. They each represent contrasting sections of the queer community: Robert embodies the utopian queer dream of fucking, booze, and poppers; David is an integrationist, has a long-time lover called Steve and no friends with AIDS. “Artie wrote the [latter] part with me in mind,” David says. “I would consider myself pretty middle of the road in the gay community at that time.”

While both Artie and Geoff would fall victim to the disease by the end of the decade, neither of them knew at the time that they were HIV-positive. Yet the rage of injustice surges through Edholm’s performance. “Do you think that if straight senators and their straight sons had AIDS--that all of that money would take so long to come down?” Robert bitingly asks David in one scene, as VHS footage of a pride parade plays in the background. In Robert's mind, he isn’t being killed by a virus -- he’s being murdered by political inaction.

“It was hard for him to get into that hospital bed,” David says. “We shot the hospital scenes in three days in chronological order. It was terribly fraught for all of us to watch Geoff play this part with such intensity, vitality and emotion. I think he hoped -- and I have notes that he actually said this -- that the part would spare him.”

Buddies is predominantly seen from David’s perspective, occasionally deviating into flickers of fantasy -- particularly as he falls more in love with Robert -- that imagine their lives together if their circumstances were different. In a pivotal moment of their romance, David massages Robert while the latter masturbates. It's an image homaged in Robin Campillo’s 120BPM.

While David and Geoff had never met prior to the film, they cultivated a strong bond on Buddies which they maintained up until Geoff's death in 1989. “I wasn’t visiting him every day,” David says of his friend after the latter’s diagnosis. “Our bodies betray us all the time, but the wasting away -- it was, and is, a horrific process to see in young vital people. To see them experience that sort of destruction and pain.”

Artie died in 1987. “I saw him a couple of months before he passed away,” David recalls. “I’m lucky to still be here. Artie named the character David, he said, to condemn me to good health.” I ask him, delicately, if he feels any level of survivor’s guilt. “I don’t know if I feel survivor’s guilt, as just as much as being incredibly lucky.”

Artie's death spurred David, who had not been active on the queer political scene until after Buddies, to do more for the movement. “In 1988 I decided to actually volunteer for the GMHC [Gay Men’s Health Crisis]... after a while, they invited me to actually come on staff for their major fundraising events: AIDS Walk New York and a newly designed event called the AIDS Dance-a-thon.” The latter was famously attended by Madonna.

By the mid-90s, when the first protease inhibitors were introduced by the FDA -- resulting in a sharp drop in AIDS-related deaths, retrospectively heralded as the “Lazarus effect” -- David estimates that he had lost “six very close people” to the epidemic. But through his work with the GMHC, he knew countless other victims: “I wasn’t even in my 40s yet when we were experiencing this magnitude of loss.”

Buddies was restored by The Bressan Project last year. “The re-release of the film has brought many conversations that have been able to lie dormant for a while," David says. "It is astounding where we’ve come, and how much loss… it’s not always easy.”

The way that the government ignored people with AIDS because they were gay in the 80s, he argues, “is not unlike current politics, and you can fill in the blank: immigrants, the working class, people of colour”. In contrast to America’s contemporary political climate -- perhaps, more to the point, in spite of America -- Buddies advocates for us to embrace the othered. “The hyperpartisanship and nationalism that exists in the US is just astounding," David says. "The amount of vilification and hatred and apathy... but I think the film has that power.”

Buddies will be reissued in cinemas on 6th December and on home entertainment on 9th December, courtesy of Peccadillo Pictures