A frank, no-frills account of the AIDS crisis as seen from ground zero — San Francisco’s gay Castro Street district circa 1980 — “We Were Here” documents the epidemic through a powerful combination of first-hand testimony, archival photography and TV news footage. “The Cockettes” co-directors David Weissman and Bill Weber’s approach is positivist in the most essential sense, focusing on five survivors who stepped up to respond as AIDS ravaged their community, thereby emphasizing the activism that emerged to face the challenge. Especially vital to younger auds, the pic could become a classroom staple after touring fests and specialty venues.
Challenging the homophobic notion that the so-called “gay lifestyle” is defined by selfishness and immorality, “We Were Here” places the libertine attitudes that made possible the spread of HIV in the context of the free-love generation, suggesting that gays were hardly the only people having lots of unprotected sex at the time. The five interviewees, who range from HIV-positive Visual Aid founder Daniel Goldstein to nurse Eileen Glutzer, recall those early days when paranoia and confusion set the tone.
After a period of relative hedonism, otherwise vibrant and healthy gay men began developing Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions and dying of unlikely diseases. Some 30 years later, we know the precautions needed to prevent infection, though “We Were Here” reminds what a terrifying enigma AIDS was at the outset, dubbed the “gay plague,” with roughly half of San Francisco’s gay community testing positive by the mid-’80s.
The film’s subjects get understandably emotional when recalling the partners and friends they lost to the disease, and even without further manipulation, auds will be hard-pressed to resist tearing up in the face of such heartfelt testimony. Weissman and Weber are incredibly restrained with music and other tricks commonly used to goose sentiment in such films, to the extent that “We Were Here” feels almost rudimentary in its approach.
The co-helmers’ straightforward format alternates between polite talking-head footage and the lo-fi, slow-zoom treatment iMovie uses to display still photographs — a throwback to 1977’s landmark “Word Is Out.” (The two docs would make an affecting double bill, effectively bookending the era in question.)
Despite all the tragedy and regret associated with the AIDS epidemic, “We Were Here” concentrates on the impressive way a collective of disenfranchised individuals came together to support one another in this time of crisis. In that respect, the title has dual meanings, referring to both the film’s “Shoah”-like survivors’ testimony and the fact that the gay community was there for one another at a time that government and medicine were slow to respond.
Guy Clark ran a flower shop in the heart of the Castro, donating arrangements when customers couldn’t afford flowers for the ever-growing number of funerals. Ed Wolf wasn’t cut out for casual sex, but channeled his nurturing spirit into support groups like Shanti, where he found a way to connect with fellow gays in need. And Paul Boneberg founded political awareness group Mobilization Against AIDS, which organized the candlelight march on City Hall where Cleve Jones proposed the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.
“We Were Here” tracks the crisis all the way to the present, covering the drug advances that have made it possible to live with the disease, as well as the public relations victories that helped remove the stigma. However, in this post-Magic Johnson era, where AIDS no longer means certain death, the public has gotten careless again. Though the testimony featured in “We Were Here” will sound familiar to anyone over 40, the rising number of new infections (particularly among the black and early-20s segments) indicate a pressing need for such projects.
Extensive vintage photography reminds how aesthetically different the gay identity was then, when masculinity and body hair were more the norm, as opposed to the laser-trimmed, body-sculpted “metrosexual” ideal of today — an observation younger auds will probably find amusing.