A look back at AIDS outbreak
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Oct 28, 2011
At once elegiac and exhilarating, "We Were Here" honors both the fallen and the survivors of the AIDS epidemic, which began - it's hard to believe now - 30 years ago.
That's when those first mysterious cases of Kaposi's sarcoma began cropping up in San Francisco's Castro district. As more and more men succumbed, the gay community rallied, with friends and lovers taking care of their own, angrily organizing to demand better health services and more aggressive research and reassessing behavior that, once an expression of sexual liberation, had practically overnight become deadly.
The tragic but empowering arc of the gay community's response to AIDS is limned with acumen and sensitivity in "We Were Here," David Weissman and Bill Weber's documentary that is all the more moving for being so lucidly understated. Interviewing four men and a female nurse who were on the front lines during the most deadly years of the "gay cancer," as it was known in the early 1980s, the filmmakers take viewers back to those first vague glimmers of distress, then plunge them headlong into the crisis at its most florid. "How were you getting it? Who were you getting it from? Who was giving it to who?" Ed Wolf, an early caregiver, recalls the questions as the panic that set in.
Quickly enough, paralyzing fear was supplanted by clear-eyed action, which in the epidemic's early days took the form of food banks and care programs. Eventually, those early efforts grew into more sophisticated political organizing, as San Francisco's gay community - empowered by leaders such as Harvey Milk to resist being marginalized and silenced - refused to die without a fight.
Weissman and Weber make effective use of stock images and filmed material, but the soul of the film lies with the five witnesses whose intimate testimony of loss, grief and galvanizing action takes on increasing moral heft as the outbreak peaks, then reaches its eventual denouement. (With its simple portraits of first-hand witnesses, "We Were Here" resembles "Rebirth," about the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001; together these films offer something of a template for filmmakers seeking to chronicle profound tragedy without cheap emotion or mawkish overstatement.)
As a companion piece to Weissman and Weber's deliriously entertaining 2002 film "The Cockettes," about the San Francisco-based drag queen troupe, "We Were Here" strikes a more somber but equally triumphant chord. That chord is timely, too: With health care and mass protest again in the news, the filmmakers' story of grass-roots activism, compassion and transcendence will surely not be lost on contemporary viewers.
As an activist named Paul Boneberg recalls in the film, his friends' and neighbors' immediate impulse to care for the sick and dying "was a response America should be proud of."
He's right, and "We Were Here" pays eloquent homage to men and women who deserve to be celebrated and remembered as heroes.
Contains adult themes and material