We Were Here

Written by:
Beverly Berning
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Photo Credit: Crawford Barton

We Were Here (2011)

Directed by: David Weissman
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Run Time: 90 minutes

The gay community of San Francisco has been well documented in film over the years. From The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) to Common Threads (1989), from The Cockettes (2002) to the KQED’s “Hidden Cities of San Francisco” series The Castro (1997), and in quasi biographical films such as Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City (1993) and More Tales of the City (1998) to this year’s docudrama about Allen Ginsberg in 1950s San Francisco, Howl (2010), every aspect of the unique community by the bay has been examined. Or nearly. It has taken the emotional and temporal distance of thirty years for a documentarian to tackle the story of gay life in the early years of the AIDS pandemic.

Along with Manhattan and Los Angeles, San Francisco was ground zero for the AIDS epidemic that erupted on the heels of a vibrant and celebratory, even bacchanalian, gay male community that had emerged a decade after the political spark of the Stonewall riots. The uniqueness of the gay community that rose up in the Castro Street district lies in its geography. In The Castro, a traditional urban neighborhood that felt and feels like a village, the entire gay community would cross paths, meet for dining or shopping, and assemble for marches and protests-unlike the anonymity and geographical disconnect of many urban gay communities.

As the mysterious illnesses suddenly and rapidly began killing young gay men off, the community was forced to witness at first hand that something terrifying and lethal was stalking the community. The fear was palpable. Two main reasons seem to have necessitated a delay in telling the story: the restigmatization of gay male sex in the wake of AIDS, and the long-term, profoundly traumatic effect of the epidemic on both individuals and the gay community as a whole.

Director David Weissman (The Cockettes) weaves an epic tale of the impact of the epidemic through only five voices. Three gay white men, a gay man of color and a (white) woman each tells their own story, weaving the personal with the professional. Each of the interviewees had arrived in San Francisco in the 1970s and participated in the joy and ebullience of community-building, and were firmly anchored when the tidal wave hit. Each interviewee (and some of them are themselves long-term survivors of HIV) took the epidemic on, making a deep commitment to, basically, help hundreds of gay men die.

There was no social or medical infrastructure to turn to for support. As AIDS hysteria caused Americans to shun gay men and even to eagerly encourage our (in their eyes, well deserved) deaths, as then President Reagan stood by for five years, refusing to even say the word AIDS, these five individuals and legions of other gay men and lesbians came together in mutual aid to cope with the epidemic. Their response became world famous in the 1980s as the “San Francisco Model” for AIDS care, and was replicated throughout the US and Europe.

Rarely has any community come together in the face of an epidemic, and for the newly emergent gay community, this was nothing short of astounding. Each story is deeply affecting and plumbs the depths of compassion that humans are capable of. We Were Here serves as witness to the broader issues of loss and death, of community trauma, of compassion and healing. Above all, it is a message of hope in the face of the most unimaginable catastrophe. Understated throughout, We Were Here will stand as the document of record, establishing the public, collective memory of a time and place so many have wanted to forget.

Les Wright

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