Reflections on stuff guys don’t want to talk about.
The movie poster that hangs in Hank and Barbara Mandel’s Stratford home shows Hank’s name in large type, as well as his pleasant bearded face and the nose that, as the film’s audience learns, isn’t his favorite feature.
But then, the 66-year-old Stratford resident never imagined starring on the screen, unless you count his childhood fantasies watching the exploits of Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers. And yet here’s Hank Mandel’s image next to that of a newborn baby boy, the two symbolizing the delicate issues raised in Five Friends, the documentary he co-produced. It’s a film that, wherever it’s been shown since its April debut, has provoked laughter and tears.
The laughs begin in the first scene, as Hank walks through Connecticut woods on a winter day, enjoying Mother Nature’s beauty but underestimating her capacity to dump him in a snowbank. The tears come much later.
But I am getting ahead of the story, for the tale of how this film came to be, and what it says about Hank’s campaign on behalf of male enlightenment, yields compelling lessons, including a few that tend to make women empathize and men squirm.
In 2009, as Hank was planning to retire as head of People’s United Community Foundation, he read a piece in The New York Times about male relationships. It pointed out that often straight men and gay men are able to have emotionally close relationships with each other. But Hank thought, “How about straight men with each other?”
As he says, “There’s a stereotype, that men’s friendships are all about backslapping and girls and rock ’n’ roll and sports talk.” But looking back on his own experiences, he saw much more. “Wherever I have gone in life,” he told me recently, “I have found gentle, loving, caring men.” Men with whom he was not afraid to share hopes and fears and lamentations of failure, and whom he sometimes told, “I love you.”
So he had an idea. He called Erik Santiago, a young filmmaker he had worked with on training programs for the bank. He urged Santiago to consider male intimacy as the subject of a documentary. Santiago replied incredulously, “Male what?”
But gradually an idea formed, and both got more excited about it. In the end, the plan was modest—no dreams of prizes at Cannes, just a film for private use. “I talked about it,” Hank says, “as a legacy for our children.” (He and Barbara have two daughters from previous marriages.)
Even so, filmmaking is not cheap, and in this case a small crew would have to go on location, as the plan was to film scenes between Hank and his closest pals, interspersed with comments from experts on issues of intimacy.
Hank asked Barbara what she thought about investing family money in the project. She was supportive. Of course, she knew Hank’s personal story—and the way he had always been able to pull things off against considerable odds.
There may have been a less promising student at Manhattan’s Fieldston School in the late ’50s and early ’60s, but that person would have been hard to find. “I was always the stupidest kid in class,” Hank recalls. His troubles were many—bad eyesight and hearing and a significant learning disability (what we now recognize as dyslexia). His self-image was not boosted when the principal called him in and said, “You should aspire to own a gas station.”
Even so, he overcame these issues and was accepted by Ithaca College. This was mainly because, he says, Ithaca needed, at last, to enroll someone from prestigious Fieldston. But also because he kept plugging away at things he could do, such as acting in plays and working as a camp counselor, where he encouraged and supported others who felt the inadequacies he’d once felt. At Ithaca he built on these strengths, so much so that he earned a full scholarship for a master’s degree in social work at Rutgers.
Afterward, he indeed did become a social worker, then worked his way up from instructor to associate professor at Yale Medical School, lecturing on social issues such as drug abuse and treatment. In this way, he bridged the gap between his training and the reality of the streets. He insisted his students spend time in New Haven’s most violent neighborhoods to discover for themselves the roots of drug abuse.
After a decade dealing with the unsettling politics of academia, he went out on his own as a business consultant, specializing in conflict resolution. One of his clients was People’s Bank, as it was then called. In 1995, the bank offered him the position of executive vice president.
Very little of that impressive backstory is represented in the film. Five Friends is instead an intimate view of one man’s relationships, interspersed with comments from social workers and clergy who argue that it is dangerous for men to keep feelings to themselves—a practice that can lead to rage, domestic violence and serious health problems.
Hank and his friends are certainly not guilty of bottling up their feelings. The film includes exchanges, for example, on difficult family relationships (Hank asks one friend for advice after his daughter falls in love with a man he dislikes) and envy (he tells another of his disappontment at not being included in a guys-only vacation). These are levels of candor that seem to come easily when women talk, but are rare, or so it seems, when men get together. What also comes out in the film is the secret Hank had kept from everyone, including his parents and closest friends.
The summer he was 10, he went to camp in the Catskills. There, he was told to report to the head counselor in his room. The counselor forced him to submit to repeated sessions of sexual abuse.
That brutal revelation is perhaps the heart of the film. And yet it almost ended up on the cutting-room floor. As Barbara told me, “I told Hank that I worried people would see that and say, ‘Oh, that’s the reason he’s damaged,’ or define him by that.”
Hank’s view was that the scene ought to stay, because “at the very least you have to articulate the very worst that men can do to each other. Besides, I was never going to let my family, dyslexia or camp define me.” In the end, though, he left the decision to director Santiago, who made the right call.
When Hank showed the film to a focus group in his living room, one man couldn’t stop crying. Later he told Hank, “Me, too,” a reference to sexual abuse he had suffered and had never, until then, told anyone about.
Women who saw the film, responding to many of its poignant scenes, asked to show it to their brothers and fathers. Hank planned screenings at homes and other venues at which audiences had the same reactions.
Hank says spreading the word about male intimacy “is becoming my life’s work.” Beyond the film itself (the DVD is being sold to the public, from fivefriendsmovie.com), workshops are being held and there’s a workbook based on the lessons the film teaches. Reviews (in Psychology Today and Christianity Today) have been positive, and CPTV is planning to show the film next year.
In the meantime, Hank lives the story every day. Recently, he had lunch in New Haven with one of the pals featured in Five Friends. When a woman overheard them talking, she told them how wonderful it was to hear the candid conversations of gay men. All Hank could do was smile.