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DVD Watch: 'We Were Here'

SF survivors remember the early days of the AIDS epidemic

By Russ Espinoza, 12:37PM, Fri. Jun. 1, 2012

DVD Watch: 'We Were Here'

Several decades of advancements in HIV/AIDS research and treatment have reversed the virus from a death sentence in the first world, but that doesn’t mean the shadowy, lethal menace of its stateside detonation has been forgotten by those who were there at ground zero.

Director David Weissman’s reflective 2011 documentary We Were Here enlists unique perspectives and remembrances from five living witnesses to the HIV/AIDS epidemic that decimated San Francisco’s gay male community in the late 1970s and ’80s. Weissman is a veteran of San Francisco’s indie film establishment; he previously directed (with Bill Weber, who co-directs and edits here) the acclaimed 2002 doc The Cockettes, about the exuberant San Francisco theatrical troupe of the same name.

We Were Here is a straightforward, unavoidably heavy retrospective where aged – and predominantly gay male – storytellers relive the various dimensions of vibrancy, fraternity, confusion, fear, and death that defined the days of their youth inside the city’s Castro District, a neighborhood that boomed as a cultural epicenter for a nation of gay men.

Arresting reminiscences and period history from the film’s driving voices illustrate the epidemic’s diverse personal, social, medical, and political shades. Archival photos, footage, and newspaper microfilm complement their verbal accounts with a spectrum of touching, somber, and jarring visual aids (including a sea of obituaries).

For the subjects – a florist, a hospice worker, an H.I.V.-positive artist, a female nurse, and a political activist – their sorrow for the scores of lovers and friends felled by AIDS remains acute, but their outreach efforts to alleviate the collective suffering speaks to the Castro’s extended community response. Today’s youth, taking for granted how treatable the disease now is (at least for the insured), understand the early days of AIDS in terms of a vague body count; in that context, the film’s most poignant moments occur through the intimate details shared about long-dead individuals, reinforcing how personalities, imaginations, and talents died – not just bodies.

Overall, what resonates in the telling is an emboldening message of love shown through the survivors’ deep personal investment in the suffering of friends and strangers alike. As is expressed in Albert Camus’ The Plague, We Were Here demonstrates how communal reaction to catastrophe spawns an odd quality of affirming basic human goodness.

Newly released on DVD (Docurama, $29.95), the We Were Here disc includes a short interview with Weissman and Weber, as well as a collection of HIV/AIDS public service announcements produced by Weissman in the Nineties. The film is also available for streaming from the official website, and it will premiere on PBS’ Independent Lens on June 14.

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