The terms "man date" and "bromance" are hardly new. The New York Times wrote about the former more than six years ago, and the latter was coined by the editor of a skateboard magazine in the late 1990s, describing the relationship between skateboarding friends who spent lots of time together. The terms (and ideas) have become Hollywood staples in recent years, as various films—notably I Love You Man and Superbadon the silver screen, and Mad Men on TV—have tackled the topic. And Esquire magazine asked on its May 2010 cover, "Are you man enough for the 'man date'?"
Though pop culture is showing more interest than ever in heterosexual male friendships, the ideas are almost as old as civilization, starting—at least fictionally—as far back as Fred Flinstone and Barney Rubble. Three thousand years ago, the Old Testament's David and Jonathan epitomized such a relationship, and in 300 B.C., Aristotle described the perfect friendship like this: "It is those who desire the good of their friends for the friends' sake that are most truly friends, because each loves the other for what he is, and not for any incidental quality."
But few have tackled the topic as deeply, poignantly, sensitively, and seriously as filmmaker Erik Santiago in his new 70-minute documentary, Five Friends, now available on DVD after multiple screenings to various groups, including church gatherings.
Santiago, who wrote, directed, and produced the film, started with a simple enough premise: Already the father of two daughters, he began to think more seriously about male friendships when his wife became pregnant with their first son. Santiago, in his mid-20s, sought the wisdom and advice of a good friend, Hank Mandel, almost twice Santiago's age.
Nothing earth-shattering about that premise, but Santiago noticed something about Mandel that stood out from many of the other men he knew. Not only was Mandel open, vulnerable, and willing to go deep—traits men traditionally struggle with—but he had some friends who were the same way. Santiago determined that it was those friendships—more than just age and "acquired" wisdom—that made Mandel special. Santiago wanted the same for himself—and for his soon-to-be-born son.
So he focuses Five Friends not on himself, but on Mandel and, as the title says, five of Mandel's best friends. The idea was also sparked by a quote from early American writer and philosopher Elbert Hubbard: "My father always used to say that when you die, if you've got five real friends, you've had a great life." The now 60-something Mandel has those five "real" friends, and thus makes a both fascinating subject and a terrific example for men seeking the same kind of deeper relationships in their own lives.
And though the film isn't particularly "Christian" in its approach, the ideas discussed—and the friendships modeled—are quite biblical. I was more moved and motivated about male friendships from this film than I have been by any Promise Keepers event, Bible study, or weekend men's retreat. I was both encouraged by knowing that I already have strong male friendships in my own life—I am blessed with at least five such friends—and exhorted in ways I can make those friendships even stronger.
Santiago mixes interviews with experts—including a sociology professor and a Christian pastor, both of whom go beyond mere theory and speak realistically and humorously—with vignettes of Mandel and each of his five friends, one-on-one. The scenes of Hank's friendships range from light to heavy; it's sometimes astonishing how deep these men go with each other while on camera, sharing joys and pains and everything in between.