While the transformation of the AIDS epidemic from what Reagan termed "gay cancer" to a globally-feared disease has been well documented on TV and in film, many of these attempts have suffered from being either too oblique and general, focusing on polarizing public figures in their treatment of the harrowing decade-plus that AIDS ravaged communities unchecked.
For this reason, David Weissman's "We Were Here" -- a probing look into the emergence and rapid spread of H.I.V. and AIDS in San Francisco -- proves to be a horrifying yet sensitive window into a community facing a most literal plague.
By focusing his documentarian's eye on five individuals and their experiences, the director deftly navigates an entire community through a quintet of viewpoints that promise not to tell the whole truth, but a representative narrative that's intimately comprehendible by nearly any audience.
Viewers familiar and ignorant alike with the events of the 1980s and early '90s will feel a visceral connection with characters like Guy Clark, the kindhearted ex-dancer ("I'd get on center stage and dance myself in a frenzy") who sold flowers on the corner as his community was decimated around him. And Daniel Goldstein, the artist who worked for Harvey Milk and lost not one but two of his partners to the disease that he himself had also contracted.
And though "We Were Here" has its extremely weighty moments, and the format (the five interviews are only interrupted by news broadcasts and photo reels from the era) can grow a bit taxing, it's redeemed by its insistence on not shying away from contradictions. Paul Boneberg, one of the film's more political five, describes the gay community as such: "If you took a group of young men and told them that they could have sex as much as you want, how much do you think they'd have? They'd have a lot of sex."
Yet earlier in the film, another character implores the viewer to realize that "[homosexuals] are not some network of people who just like to have sex."
The five characters here don't need to prove anything or make any grand arguments, so their willingness to share moments of great personal strength don't come off as preachy. As Ed Wolf, a counselor who attested to being "terrified" by anonymous sex but somehow managed to comfort those who could not survive the disease's grasp calmly says, "It's not heroic, you just do it."
The film tacitly asks its viewer to trust its characters' stories, as well as their statistics. At one point, one of the characters says that by 1979, 10 percent of gay men in San Francsisco were infected with H.I.V. By '81, when doctors realized something was happening, the character claims 20 percent were infected. And by the time the test came around to the Castro, half of the gay population was carrying the virus.
More than 15,000 people died from the virus by the mid 1990's. What Weissman captures is not just the pain of the singular group, but a veritable wiping-out of communities that ultimately led to many Americans to develop a sense of compassion for homosexuals and revisit the "moral question" of gayness in a more accepting manner.
But "We Were Here" doesn't take any aims to whitewash the heterosexual population's response to AIDS. An unexpected star of the movie comes in the form of Tom Brokaw, who reported at the time of the epidemic's outbreak that half of Americans surveyed believed that AIDS patients should be quarantined, with a striking number suggesting even more radical means of identification and stigmatization.
All in all, the documentary is a haunting, arresting portrait of a city under siege and a population that was only just learning to stand up for itself. It's also a time capsule that offers a look at a group of massively talented people who -- to put it as painfully simply as Eileen, another of the film's featured voices, does -- "aren't alive today."
"We Were Here" opens in theaters on Friday, Sept. 9.
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