A simple, powerful act of bearing witness, We Were Here is a sober reminder of the not-too-distant past, when gays were focused not on honeymoon plans but on keeping people alive. David Weissman’s oral history of the AIDS crisis in San Francisco also explores the specifics of psychogeography: Vividly recalling the specific street corners, bars, and shops forever linked with their earliest memories of the disease, his five interviewees recount their experiences living in the city at the height of the epidemic in the 1980s and early ’90s.
Weissman, whose previous doc, The Cockettes (2002), co-directed with Bill Weber, was another SF chronicle, records his subjects with little embellishment. Four gay men—Guy, Daniel, Ed, and Paul—and a woman, Eileen, whose sexuality is never specified, are introduced only once by a title card (closing credits reveal their surnames). Reminiscent of the groundbreaking 1978 doc Word Is Out, one of the most significant records of gay life just before AIDS, Weissman’s generational portrait (all five interviewees appear to be in their mid- to late-fifties) uses archival footage and music cues judiciously. These talking, sometimes weeping, heads share uniformly moving (and never maudlin) remembrances, full of pain and insight.
Their words are frequently unsparing. Eileen, a nurse who tended to AIDS patients, stresses the psychic toll of the era, when “all you were doing was helping people die.” Daniel, an artist diagnosed early with HIV who lost two partners to the disease, recalls his caregiver’s fatigue: “I somehow knew my limits and couldn’t take one more sick friend on.” Others, particularly Paul, a longtime AIDS activist who was appointed executive director of San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society in 2007, clearly elucidate the political battles that both united and divided the gay community during the plague years. As in many other cities, Northern California queers banded together to fight “extraordinary civil rights abuses,” such as the initiatives that sought to quarantine those with HIV/AIDS, but split over whether the SF health director’s mandate to close the baths in 1984 was “a dangerous precedent,” an overreach of the state to curtail what, for many, was a pillar of gay lib—the right to public sex.
Supplementing but never overshadowing these first-person narratives is Weissman’s well-curated interstitial footage. As his subjects recall the promise of freedom, sexual and otherwise, that led them to San Francisco in the ’70s, Weissman includes a few elysian shots of the Castro sometime during the Carter administration: beautifully sculpted, impressively mustached men, smiling and strutting in cowboy boots and cutoffs. Do some of them appear in the grim archival montages later on, bodies covered in lesions and wasting away as Bay Area headlines announce the arrival of a “gay cancer”? Rooted in individual, highly personal recollections, Weissman’s doc is still haunted by these anonymous figures. As Daniel wonders, “What would the world be like if they were here?”