It's hard not to be affected by David Weissman's stirring documentary about the early days of AIDS in San Francisco "We Were Here." While I think some viewers were expecting a comprehensive overview of the AIDS crisis, I feel that what Weissman has accomplished is far more relevant and provocative. This is not history or news exactly (although both feature prominently), but eyewitness accounts by those on the front lines at a momentous time in our national consciousness. Not given a choice, these were pioneers in a new world. There was no precedent for what was happening, and little initial support, but everyone had to navigate a new life path with this tumultuous and deadly development.
"We Were Here" tells the story of five individuals who experienced the horrors first hand. There is a nurse who dedicated her life to her patients and was a trailblazer in the arena of research, a flower seller who gives accounts of the visible devastation, an outcast who became an essential caregiver, an artist who suffered great personal loss, and an individual that would become a leading advocate in political and social forums. While it is an interesting and diverse cross section, make no mistake--they are all telling the same story. And as horrifying and as unpleasant as it is, it is also a tale of perseverance, support, and ultimately hope. Ordinary citizens had the chance to be heroes, even in the smallest of ways, and the film never forgets these individual contributions as huge milestones in an ongoing epidemic.
The film, itself, is solidly constructed. The five interviewees alternate within the presentation and the use of archival footage, photographs, and news stories help define the climate of a city in turmoil. From the late seventies to current times, the film shows how awareness and response has evolved through the decades. Its depiction is frequently troubling and oftentimes inspiring. "We Were Here" was a Documentary Nominee at the Independent Spirit Awards and has some images and moments that I won't soon forget. Effective and deeply affecting, it truly honors those that were taken too early. KGHarris, 5/12.
on March 27, 2012
I'm going to start by being honest and saying that David Weissman is a friend of mine. I'll try not to let that bias my views too much ;-)
I was privileged to attend an early screening of 'We Were Here' in San Francisco. I don't think there was a dry eye in the audience by the end of the film. Following a few of those who were at the heart of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, the documentary captures the times - the devastating hardship and loss, the buoyant compassion and community. The stories that come from these interviews span decades and tells of neighbors, friends, families that loved, died and fought hard together. It's a rare thing that a documentary can make you weep in both sadness and joy.
As a gay man, I find the legacy of these stories to be vital for LGBT history and in honoring the many, far too many, who have been lost to AIDS. 'We Were Here' puts faces and real, hard facts to the many abstractions that can exist in what we often construe as history. I cannot more highly recommend this film - we have all been affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, whether you know it or not, and you should watch this film to more fully understand how.
Thank you everybody who worked on this film.
"We Were Here" is a powerful, heart wrenching documentary about a time in San Francisco when AIDS was initially known as the "gay cancer." Up until 1981 or so, the LGBTQ community in San Francisco had enjoyed a real measure of dignity and freedom they were cruelly denied in most other parts of the country. Unfortunately, that was to change. At the very beginning of the health crisis, gay men suddenly, inexplicably and mysteriously began getting seriously ill--and often dying as soon as only a few days later. This story clearly deserves to be told; and the filmmakers treated this project as a labor of love. We get thoughtful interviews with five survivors of the health crisis that claimed the lives of so many innocent and often young human beings. The interview footage is used along with archival footage of news reports and sick patients talking with their doctors; and the still photographs are very good as well.
The interviews highlight the stories of four men and one woman who had to go through what no one should have to go through, especially at such a young age. Their stories are so poignant I cried--and I never cry! We meet a florist who was horrified to see people he knew "dropping like flies;" and we hear him talk about how he donated flowers at no charge so that countless people could have a decent funeral and burial service--people who had been rejected by their biological families could at least die with dignity at their funerals. Another man discusses how he lost more than one lover to AIDS; he becomes quite emotional during the interview and I felt so badly for him. He's a tough survivor living with HIV himself. Another interviewee, a woman who was a nurse, remembers the first time a doctor told her to start wearing gloves on her hands when dealing with the blood of a gay man because they didn't yet know how the illness was being transmitted.
The film also explores the evolution of AIDS activists crying out for federal funding from the Reagan administration that was scarcely sympathetic to the LGBTQ community.
And there's more; but I don't want to spoil it all for you. Anyone with a heart will be deeply moved by this well made documentary; it's terrifying, tragic but completely true as we sadly know today.
The DVD comes with extras; and all of them are good. I particularly liked "HIV: Un-Infected (is not) Un-Affected" and the interview with the filmmakers.
I highly recommend this film for people in the LGBTQ community; people who want to learn more about the community; persons interested in the initial development of the AIDS crisis and people who appreciate emotive and wholehearted documentaries.
on March 27, 2012
This is a remarkable piece of work. It is a moving and tragic tale, sensitively brought to the screen with a poignancy and delicacy fitting to the subject matter and to the individuals and community that it represents. Ultimately, this means the human community that we all are a part of. It is a lovely tribute to those that were there, both those living still, and to those who did not survive this epidemic. It's a very warm and human story and an important chapter in our history; a history that could too easily have been forgotten or dismissed. It will move your heart...
on May 6, 2014
Not at all what I expected —this, in fact, is a story of strength, empathy, hard won wisdom and resilience as five interviewees recount their experience and response to the outbreak of Aids among the gay population in San Francisco --- which then became a true community in its compassionate and active response to the disease.
Thirty years after the fact, the reminiscence, while elegiac and sad, can capture only a shadow of the existential outrage and confusion of the times. The survivors have had time to heal and frame their experiences, and while the sadness remains, Daniel can say in the end, 'Everyone dies, and everyone goes through the experience of having a loved one die.'
I happened to concurrently be reading Jennifer Worth's [ of 'Call the Midwife' fame] memoirs about her work with the dying, 'In the Midst of Life', when I ran across a shocking passage in the chapter on Elizabeth Kubler Ross, who wrote the seminal 'On Death and Dying'.
In 1986 Kubler Ross began to be contacted by women who were dying of Aids related complications and who, as in one instance, had contacted 70 [!] agencies, none of which would touch, let alone care for their HIV positive babies. Kubler Ross opened her own home/ facility on 20 acres of land to these children only to be met with horrendous hostility within her wealthy Virginia community, which tried to shut down her hospice, repeatedly sabotaging her car, shooting bullets through her windows, harassing her helpers, calling her vicious names, burning crosses on her lawn [ courtesy of the KKK] and so on. This was not the moral majority, nor the Christian right but a wealthy and educated population which embodied America's paranoid response to this disease.
What could account for such behavior? It wasn't just that Aids was a terrible virus in and of itself, [cancer and heart disease have killed more people in horribly unpleasant ways, and cancers afflict the young as well], but that it carried the notion of stigmatized activity with it. We can hardly look death in the face in our culture but to look at sex without the prism of 2000 years of repressive Judeo-Christian indoctrination was, and often is seemingly, impossible.
The sexual revolution in America and the general hedonism of the late 60's which gave rise to the liberation movements of the 70's affected many Americans. I remember the times well, there was a huge upsurge in activity as Puritanical notions were dying away, ordinary married people were wife swapping and watching porn, casual sex became normative, the arts community favored trendy bisexuality, sex clubs of all sorts were flourishing; the pill having eradicated the fear of unwanted pregnancy, and with penicillin as the cheap and available cure for most sexually transmitted disease there was seemingly no reason for people not to behave as they did and try all sorts of things on until the outbreak of Aids.
And so when the documentary mentions that 50% of Americans favored quarantining Hiv positive patients, when families shunned their gay children, when infected people asked the age old existential question Why? we are dealing with much more than a virus but deeply entrenched shame, guilt, fear and the cultural response of shunning and ostracism of the most vulnerable.
Why was the public so frightened of this disease? Well, one day a person looked healthy and the next had disfiguring sarcomas or wasting—something which was visible which could mark one and imply all sorts of hidden things in one's life coming into public view.
The San Franciscans, though frightened and horrified, were at least fortunate [ if I may say that under the circumstances] to be living in an enlightened and like minded community of their peers, who stepped up with love, care, food, counseling, political activity, even flowers -and just having compassionate nursing care or a friend or lover to hold one towards the end –who is not disgusted or afraid – is everything.
From the beginning, I found this a very uplifting testament about what a united community did and can do in the face of a dreadful crises which particularly spoke to the goodness, intelligence and kindness of the five interviewees.
on May 22, 2012
I grew up when HIV/AIDS was on the decline. The stories I heard about the tragedy beset on the gay community came from movies and books and other accounts - not from firsthand experience. In fact, I think I've known one person in my life who's passed away from AIDS. As a gay man, that's pretty remarkable given where we started back in the early 80's.
This movie is not all sad emotional soundbites which I appreciate. It tells a story by allowing each of the people in the documentary to tell their own stories. It also has positive moments in the movie as well, like when the lesbians come out in support of saving the lives of the gay men. You'll laugh and cry and I'll bet you'll even walk away learning something you didn't know before.
I would have to say this is one of the best AIDs documentaries I've watched and really appreciated it being done by people who lived through it as opposed to some narrator or biased view of how it started and progressed, which many documentaries fall prey to.
on March 27, 2012
I am a Gay rights/AIDS activist and fundraiser and have been for over 25 years. I moved to San Francisco in 1990 so I did not experience firsthand what was happening here during the period the documentary covered. The film did its job by filling in this important gap of time for me using first hand stories from some amazing San Franciscans that are still around today. The film also took me back to times I did experience and made me remember so many things I had conveniently filed away. Even though it was painful to watch at times, it was a healing type of pain that allowed me to appreciate how far we have come in this crisis. It also made me so very proud of our community for stepping up to fight this terrifying outbreak at a time when nobody else would, including our own Government. It was a time when our own President would not say the word AIDS in public. It was a time of great fear and very little understanding yet these individuals stepped up the best way they knew how, made such a difference, and gave so many some dignity when there was little to be had.
Another reviewer was disappointed that the film left out a subject that was important to him. I hear what he is saying and I understand. I do believe there was a tremendous amount going on during this period. The very first Safe Sex brochure (Play Fair) was produced before there was even a name for the disease. The very first AIDS fundraiser was held, a dog show in the Castro with guest judge Shirley McClain. The pamphlet and the event were both created in San Francisco by the Sisters or Perpetual Indulgence during this same period as their own organization was being decimated by AIDS. Both are important pieces of Gay history, as are so many other parts of the story, however I believe it would have been impossible to cover it all in just one movie. I think by looking back in time through the eyes of a few extraordinary people the film succeeds in giving us great focus on a very important part of the epidemic and our response to it as a community. I am sure it will take many more films to cover everything that happened and more films keep coming out. I am grateful that this film was one of them and that I was able to experience it. I can't wait to show it to my family and friends so they will know what happened here in San Francisco not that long ago.