With a title that sums it up so well, “We Were Here” is the story of a community fighting a force that threatened to annhilate it.
Thirty years since the mysterious “gay cancer” was first reported, director David Weissman’s second feature documentary follows the moving and intimate stories of five San Franciscans who experienced the epidemic from its onset to the present.
A survivor of the epidemic himself, Weissman looked to his community for interviewees. “I knew I would need characters audiences couldn’t help but love,” he said in a post-screening Q&A at Outfest on Saturday.
One such person is Ed Wolf, who just couldn’t seem to find his niche in the late-1970’s San Francisco gay scene. He shares being unable to grasp the sexy looks he saw other gay men sending one another before hooking up.
Finding that his thoughtfulness and sensitivity actually serving him well as a hospital and AIDS counseling volunteer, Wolf, along with a political activist, an artist, a florist, and a frontline nurse, share their experiences finding themselves thrown into a war zone of illness.
Guy Clark sat on the corner by his flower stand every day watching passers-by grow increasingly weak until they would literally waste away. Daniel Goldstein bowed out of an extremely taxing experimental drug trial, which ended up killing every participant, including his lover, who saw it through. The film shares the voices of the living, but just as importantly shares those of the dead.
A focus on the social rather than the scientific ramifications of the disease, Weissman shows how residents of San Francisco's Castro district renegotiated community and the fight for sexual freedom and intimacy that brought them to the Bay Area in the first place. He also lovingly shares the significant contributions lesbians made to the health of gay men, despite the fact that the gay community often elevates masculinity and tacitly accepts misogyny.
"I knew I wanted to do it with simplicity and dignity and without a lot of emotional manipulation," said Weissman, who moved to San Francisco in 1976. "I knew during the epidemic … that there would come a point with this epidemic that if any of us survived, we would need … to tell stories."
In using such a small number of interviews, Weissman draws his audience into the energy of late 20th century gay life in San Francisco and the impending crisis. Yet at the Outfest screening on Saturday, the reality and memory of AIDS was as much in the room as it was onscreen.
During the Q&A, a silver-haired woman stood up to thank Weissman for the moments of pause he provided the audience during moments of almost unbearable emotional intensity. For example, we see Goldstein struggling to share his last moments with his lover, and when he takes a huge breath, the audience takes one along with him.
The woman then directly addressed Wolf, who she knew personally and who was present at the Q&A. In the midst of his own overwhelming struggle counseling AIDS victims in San Francisco, Wolf flew out to Florida for the funeral of a mutual friend of his and this woman’s.
She thanked him for thinking to bring small objects from their friend’s bedroom, which he distributed to the mourners as relics of from this man’s life. The woman pulled a small piece of quartz from her pocket that she kept with her from that time, and it seemed like the whole audience was weeping.
Looking back across the crowd of mostly older gay men and lesbian women, reminded everyone that the AIDS epidemic is in no way over — it’s very much with us and it was very much in that room.
Daniel Villarreal, an editor at Queerty.com, stood up and thanked the directors for the perspective the film gave him as a younger gay man who has no personal relationship with the struggles faced by his older counterparts.
Weissman responded with hopes that his documentary would inspire an inter-generational dialogue in which younger gay people can connect to their history and the inspiring strength and community created in the context of an epidemic.
Today the disease has taken on new forms, and instead of rearing its head overwhelmingly in white gay men in the U.S., it now primarily effects communities of color. Interviewee Eileen Glutzer, who was also present at the Q&A, recognized that there still is long way to go, and expressed hopes that she would see a cure at some point in her lifetime.
“We Were Here” revisits the voices of a lost generation, and is a film that shook this young gay reviewer to the core, leaving a strengthened sense of historical rootedness and pride in my community that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
The documentary will be screening at upcoming film festivals internationally.