If you go into combat in your 20s, and most of your close friends die, it’s tragic but not entirely unexpected. But if you were a young gay man in San Francisco or New York or Los Angeles or some other urban center in the early 1980s, odds were that if you didn’t die yourself, you would suddenly lose most of the people around you, be they friends, lovers, neighbors or even just acquaintances.
And while “We Were Here” tells the story of a handful of survivors who were living in San Francisco when the AIDS pandemic first started, the film comes from a perspective that makes it hopeful and stirring, and not just completely depressing. It’s a testament to community members helping their brothers and sisters during a crisis, and it’s a history lesson that’s must viewing for the generations that have no memory of this period.
Director David Weissman (“The Cockettes”) does everything you’re generally not supposed to do in a documentary — we get talking heads, old news footage, and still photographs, and that’s about it — but “We Were Here” is never less than riveting, thanks to the stories themselves and the deep emotion with which they’re told.
We meet a florist who saw neighborhood regulars get sick and disappear, and whose loved ones asked for donated bouquets for their funerals; a shy man whose friendly demeanor was all wrong for anonymous sex in the 1970s but just perfect for working as an AIDS outreach volunteer in the 1980s; a nurse who worked with AIDS patients at a time when many medical workers were afraid to touch them; a political activist simultaneously trying to keep sick people alive and fight against an establishment that was discriminating against them; and an artist who didn’t think he’d have the luxury of staying alive more than a few months.
It’s this final interviewee who notes that there’s nothing brave or noble about staying alive when you get sick — it’s just what you do. And one of the strengths of “We Were Here” is that it doesn’t get sentimental about illness or about helping the afflicted; the subjects of this movie just did what they felt they had to do. They aren’t expecting halos for it, and the film doesn’t try to cram one on their heads.
Ever since the mid-1990s, when the “cocktail” of medications started helping people with AIDS live longer lives than they had before, the culture immediately stopped talking about AIDS and pretty much decided that the crisis was over. And while AIDS might no longer merit the term “crisis,” it hasn’t gone anywhere, so it’s vital to have movies like this to restart the conversation.
And since so many of the documentaries on the subject — including “Silverlake Life” and the Oscar-winning “Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt” — were made at a time when AIDS was much more likely to be a death sentence, it’s fascinating to get a movie about the people who didn’t die and about how getting through that period of history alive affected them in the years that followed.
Whether you were immersed in the horror of the beginning of the AIDS pandemic or you’ve grown up in a world where antiretroviral therapy has always been a fact of life, “We Were Here” will move you, educate you, and fully earn any tears you may shed.