Last Men Standing, which premiered at this year’s BFI Flare London LGBT Film Festival, is a deeply sensitive portrait of long-term HIV survivors, says Alex Hopkins at Gays.com
 

In the United States, half of those living with HIV or AIDS are over the age of 50. These are the survivors, those who have been expecting to die for decades. Erin Brethauer and Timothy Hussin’s poignant and exquisitely made documentary  - produced by the San Francisco Chronicle - follows eight of these survivors as they navigate the complex terrain of age, guilt and loss in what was once the west coast’s gay mecca.

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Scene from Last Men Standing.  Image courtesy of BFI Flare.

The senselessness of the epidemic has left them reeling – and Brethauer and Hussin encapsulate both the suddenness and ferocity of its advent as archival footage of 1970s gay parades cuts to early news reports counting the dead. Yes, this may be a familiar story, but each time you hear it, you feel like you’ve been punched in the gut.

Everything about this hugely important film is beautifully conceived, from the haunting soundtrack to the seamless editing which juxtaposes the myth of a utopian past with an often unremittingly bleak present. 

In a typically powerful sequence, we see 61-year-old Peter Greene sitting in the darkness as he watches himself being interviewed on San Francisco’s streets in the early 1980s, just before his HIV diagnosis. “Why aren’t you going cruising tonight?” the reporter asks. “Because what’s going around is not worth it. I don’t want to die,” he replies. The camera then pans in on Peter in 2015, his expression stoical, but everything else about his body language shell-shocked: yes, he has cheated death, but he feels cheated that he is still alive. 

The other interviewees tell a similar story: 55-year-old Jesus explains that he no longer needs to worry about being gay but that being old and living with HIV brings other concerns, while another man comments on how youth and beauty are the currency of the gay world. Losing these makes you invisible, he explains. All of these accounts are devoid of self-pity. They’re often delivered flatly - sometimes cracked through with emotion - but always with absolute honesty and a fierce resilience. 

Of all the stories, Peter’s is the most devastating. He and his business partner – Jonathan – were forced out of Now Voyager, the LGBT travel agency they ran and lived above for 30 years in San Francisco through the gentrification which has ripped the soul out of the city. Unable to afford the $3,600 a month required to rent a one-bedroom apartment, Peter had to leave the area he so loved. 

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Scene from Last Men Standing.  Image courtesy of BFI Flare.

Hearing this, it’s difficult not to draw bitter comparisons between the thriving, caring community of the 1980s and the casual cruelty of rapacious property developers today – and yet as we’re told how Peter’s friends clumped together to buy him a mobile home, we’re reminded that if compassion and solidarity still exists, there can be hope, even in the darkest of times.

And despite the desolate realities that these men face – financial hardship, loneliness, acute mental health issues – this profoundly tender film shows us – in the words of one of the men – that “things can be turned around”. 

We hear of how new relationships blossomed, of how one man found a purpose through voluntary work in a cat sanctuary, and then ultimately – in a supremely life-affirming scene – we watch as these brave warriors come together at a survivors’ ball, swaying gently to music as they release a lifetime of trauma and suffering. 

The path to wanting to be alive is tough and ongoing but starts when we learn to appreciate what’s truly precious: hope, pride – and, above all, love. 

 


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