There are films that take on a mythic levels of importance in their community, the gravity of their reception often owes more to timing and necessity than merit. Some stories reflect so much pain, regret or shame that any mention of the subject in a public way immediately transforms the casual film-going experience into a cathartic purge that in all likelihood has little to do even with filmmakers' intentions. These works still serve a purpose: they give voice to those under-represented in mainstream culture, they open people up to human experiences they may not have even known existed and they spread that much ballyhooed disinfectant -- sunlight -- into places that desperately need it. But they don't typically reflect a great deal of craft and rarely hold up to repeat viewings (anyone revisit Torch Song Trilogy recently? Yeesh.) They are films that serve an important function, but are largely disposable.
We Were Here: Voices from the AIDS Years in San Francisco is not one of
these films. If the emotionally charged two-and-a-half-hour discussion
that followed the rough cut screening I attended last month is any
indication, it will have a similar, immediate impact on a lot of
viewers. But co-directors David Weissman and Bill Weber (The Cockettes)
have made a thoughtful, firsthand account of what it was like to be at
ground zero during a widely misunderstood epidemic and the beautiful,
ugly and ultimately mundane human impulses that natural disasters lay
We Were Here follows five people living in San
Francisco in the late 1970s when AIDS exploded in what probably wasn't
but will still be thought of as a utopic paradise. Far
from the violent, hard-edged legacy of the Stonewall riots in New York
City, San Francisco, bathed in the golden California sun, with all
precepts of the 1950s WASP-y perfection already demolished by the
Haight-Ashbury hippies and diverse immigrant populace, was the Promise
Land to queer kids escaping hateful or hate-inducingly dull Midwestern
burgs looking for a taste of the hedonistic, good life.
story relies solely on five interview subjects strategically placed to
cover much of the breadth of the crisis: a hospice nurse, an artist who
dated a clinical biologist, a budding politician, a flower shop owner
based in the Castro and a young journalist.
As the death count grows one
interviewee makes the astute observation that the epidemic was like a
hurricane, for every five people destroyed overnight there was one left
completely untouched. When surrounded by so much misery and misfortune
people can't help but repeatedly ask the question they know there's no
answer for: Why did I survive? With a constantly shifting sentiment
about the predicate issue. Even among those who became infected, many
survived by random circumstance -- getting access to one successful drug
trial while getting shut out of one where everybody died.
The film deftly avoids too much blame-shifting or rearview mirror grandstanding in lieu of underscoring the personal experiences in total chaos and uncertainty. At the apex of anxiety President Ronald Reagan appears. The oft invoked Republican icon of kinder, gentler (whiter, straighter, wealthier) days -- is typically portrayed in documentaries about this time as having been at best a clueless dolt and at worse a cruel dilletante who laughed off a genocide as it was happening on American soil. Here he's treated with some mild deference followed by a quick cut to a young, overwhelmed community organizer trying to put together a plan to deal with the sudden upsurge of people starving to death in their apartments because they became too sick too quickly to feed themselves.
Weissman and Weber understand that cruelty and destruction hardens some, vulcanizes others but leaves most simply baffled. There's nothing extraordinary about the people who survived the early years of AIDS. And a lucky combination of chance, privilege and clear-headed thinking in times of pandemonium does not make for a happy ending to any cognizant human being. Still, it's a cliche for a reason, out of the wreckage and despair came real medical breakthroughs, a new respect between gay men and lesbian women and a generation of queers who had too much to be proud of (and too much to lose) to consider a life in the closet.
We Were Here will be screening at festivals later this year.