We Were Here (2011)
The documentary boom of the last ten years has, without doubt, produced some corkers; but David Weissman’s almost unbearably moving look at the AIDS crisis in San Francisco surely ranks as one of the finest. A tough subject matter, yes; grim in parts, of course; but his film is also thoughtful, well-crafted and – thanks to his selection of sparky, likeable interviewees – much more life-affirming than one might reasonably expect.
One of the most impressive things about this documentary is Weissman’s remarkable ability to convey with total clarity a time when nobody really knew what AIDS was. In this post-80s, post-Mark-in-Eastenders era, it might seem impossible to really understand and grasp the concept of AIDS as a total mystery. Because, surely, everyone knows what it is, how it’s transmitted and what happens, right?
Not in this world. Interviewee Ed Wolf recalls visiting his local pharmacy and seeing Polaroids of a young man covered in mysterious lesions, accompanied by a note: “Watch out guys, something’s out there.” This horror-movie warning does something to express the unreality of this period: the sheer scale of death that plagued this city, represented in the documentary by a seemingly limitless supply of newspaper obituary shots, is utterly surreal.
Quickly dubbed “the gay cancer”, AIDS made a devastating physical effect on the gay community by wiping out thousands of its members, and Weissman is at pains to spell this out clearly. Each of the five interviewees lost not one, not five, not even ten acquaintances: some of them lost virtually everyone. Eileen Glutzer, a nurse who co-founded a research centre (and the only female interviewee), tearfully recalls removing the eyes of dead patients, so that they could try to find out why AIDS was causing blindness in some victims. Daniel Goldstein remembers being part of a medical trial, treating victims with Suramin; he was the only survivor of what is now remembered as one of the first great disasters in AIDS treatment research.
However, it is the cultural impact of the disease that really lies at the core of Weissman’s film. Startling contemporary news footage depicts the undeniably homophobic external response to the AIDS crisis, including the statistic that 15 per cent of Americans would choose to have gay men’s HIV-positive status tattooed on their bodies. The move to close San Francisco’s legendary bathhouses, responsible for “promoting the spread of this disease” was perceived by many as a further attack on gay rights and freedoms. To be gay no longer meant just to be sinful or deviant: it meant you were part of a disease killing America (as though the individuals were somehow complicit). In one particularly heartbreaking account, Ed recalls hearing a father tell his AIDS-stricken son, “It’s harder for me to find out that my son is a fag than to find out he’s going to be dying soon.”
The gay community was under siege; and several of the interviewees do remember the AIDS crisis, with all its attendant baggage, as a kind of war. But Weissman skilfully tempers this grim portrait with the fact that, for many, helping to deal with the mass tragedy gave them some kind of meaning in their lives. Eileen, whose tireless work caring for dying patients as well as her research into the virus, remembers that “I didn’t choose it, it chose me.” Ed, who admits to being “terrible at anonymous sex” suddenly found that “my way of being with gay men was perfect.” He volunteered at a hospital, helping sufferers in their final stages, and also administered test results. For him, he says, the crisis gave him a chance to thrive, and to really get involved in something. It’s a terrible something, but he – along with many of the interviewees here – somehow managed to find something positive from it.
This is Weissman’s coup, and what ultimately transforms this bleak-sounding piece of cinema into something absolutely essential. As the title suggests, he only interviews people really were there. No medical experts, no cultural historians, no political commentators: just regular individuals with a personal stake in what was, objectively, a horrendous blight on a tight-knit and undeserving community.
Directors: David Weissman, Bill Weber
Stars: Ed Wolf, Paul Boneberg, Daniel Goldstein
Runtime: 90 mins