Photo: Rick Gerhart.
Recently a press release came across my desk promoting the documentary film We Were Here, which I had wanted to see for some time. I sat down on a Friday afternoon to view the film at home, alone. I really had no preconceived notions about the film other than that it was about the early days of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco. I was woefully unprepared for the experience of the next 90 minutes, and the effect and hold the film would have over me for the next few weeks.
According to the press release, "We Were Here revisits the beginning of the AIDS crisis in America through the eyes of five individuals who lived in San Francisco prior to the epidemic. From their different vantage points as caregivers, activists, researchers, friends and lovers of the afflicted, and people with AIDS themselves, the interviewees share stories which are not only intensely personal, but illuminate the much larger themes of that era: the political and sexual complexities, the terrible emotional toll, and the role of women -- particularly lesbians -- in caring and fighting for their gay brothers."
The movie takes you back to a specific time and place in history, and does it extremely well. I remember my very first visit to San Francisco, in 1983 -- I was still quite young (24) and yet somehow seemingly oblivious to the horror and devastation that the epidemic had already inflicted upon the inhabitants of the gay mecca. As Paul Boneberg states in the film, it's estimated that by 1977, 10% of the gay men in San Francisco were already infected. By the time the first cases were seen in 1981, 20% were infected, and by the time they had a test for HIV (in 1985), 50% were infected.
This progression of the epidemic in the City by the Bay as depicted in the film is, in the words of Armistead Maupin, "absolutely electrifying." Director David Weissman, who lived in San Francisco at the time, says that the movie reflects his own personal experience and view, through the juxtaposition of normalcy and insanity. "It was very important that the story be told by someone who had lived through it," says Weismann in a bonus feature on the DVD, "rather than be told by someone who was learning about it from the outside."
The film's editor and co-director Bill Weber, who lived in New York and then moved to San Francisco in the 1980s, noted the differences between activists in New York, who wore their black ACT UP t-shirts, and those in San Francisco, some of whom would be a little more daring in their outfits. He recounts an instance when cops donned rubber gloves while arresting activists during a protest, and the activists chanted, "Your gloves don't match your shoes, you'll see it on the news!"
It was important, say the directors, that the story be told in a way that was not too heavy-handed or overwhelming, so there are moments of humor and periods in the film when you are intentionally given a break from the emotional rollercoaster. But in the end, the movie is uplifting and inspirational and a beautiful tribute to a bygone era. I highly recommend it not only to those who lived through that period, but also for anyone wanting to learn more about what it was really like, having only heard about it through friends' stories or news clippings.
Says Weiss, "I'm hoping that it empowers those of us who have lived through it to realize that we have become richer, more beautiful people because of what we lived through ... and not feel any shame or hesitation in sharing that part of ourselves. That we can be mentors, and teachers, and examples ..."
"And that we're sexy, too," says Weber, with a chuckle.
We Were Here is now available on DVD in stores, at www.amazon.com, and for rent or purchase through the iTunes Store.