San Francisco’s Castro Street, from the documentary,We Were Here
A remarkable film slipped out on BBC 4 the other night, unheralded by the BBC and unnoticed by the media, as far as I can tell. Yet I would contend that We Were Here, which tells the story of the arrival and impact of AIDS in San Francisco through the recollections of five individuals who survived the terrible years when the city’s gay community was the epicentre of a calamitous epidemic, is one of the finest humanist documentaries you are ever likely to see. Catch it on iPlayer before it disappears.
Thirty years ago, the freewheeling, hedonistic world of the San Francisco gay community was shattered as strange occurrences began to puzzle, then alarm its members. By 1981, a flourishing gay community had established itself in the city that since the late 1960s had been a byword for sexual freedom and social experimentation. Through the eyes of those whose lives were transformed by the epidemic, We Were Here tells how individuals faced up to hardship and grief. From different vantage points as caregivers, activists, researchers, friends and lovers of the afflicted and as people with AIDS themselves, the film’s five respondents share stories which are intensely personal and moving.
This tragedy – it taught us how to be humble, it taught us how to be honest, it taught us how to love in spite of what’s at the end of the tunnel, how to be a bit more considerate of another person, it showed is how to find spirituality. It taught me how to find my spirit and how, you know, how to make my flame brighter.
– Guy Clark
Since the first, puzzling cases of Kaposi’s Sarcoma and other opportunistic infections began to emerge in San Francisco early in 1981, around 28,000 San Francisco residents have been diagnosed with AIDS and around 20,000 have died. But We Were Here, directed by David Weissman, does not deal in statistics; rather, in a quiet and reflective manner, it conveys an elegiac sense of a community that came together with love, compassion and determination to face up to the the unimaginable challenges they faced – to identify and understand the threat, to save lives, to resist attacks upon their civil liberties, and ultimately to engage in a selfless struggle for the betterment of others.
In the film, interviewee Ed Wolf remembers a moment early on in 1981:
I remember looking in the window of Star pharmacy and there were these little Polaroid photographs that this young man had made of himself. In the photos, purple splotches marred his chest and the inside of his mouth. Underneath it was a handwritten note with something like: ‘Watch out guys, there’s something out there’.
David Weissman presents his five emblematic stories plainly, skilfully weaving into the interviews old photographs (such as those top and below), obituaries, newspaper headlines and archival footage. The result is a film that is both deeply sad yet also uplifting.
1981: gays in Castro, San Francisco study first reports of unexplained cancers
We Were Here is both terrible and beautiful: its five subjects at times can barely control their grief as they recall the tragedies that engulfed them. But, this powerful and moving film also conveys a message of hope and humanity. The director, David Weissman remarks:
I think there are lessons, and inspiration, in this film for everyone. There is a pretty strong likelihood that each of us will be confronted with some unexpected crises in our lives – possibly enormous ones. I think that the individuals in the film are inspiring reminders that we do have inner resources that we can access, and that in creating community we can do beautiful things under terrible circumstances.
Or, as Ed Wolf, who devoted years to counselling dying AIDS patients during the peak of the epidemic, says in the film:
There was nothing extraordinary about the fact that you lose the people you love because it’s going to happen to all of us. It’s just that it happened in this targeted community of people who were disenfranchised and separated from their families. And a whole group of other people stepped up and became their family.
That story – of how the gay family or community coalesced around a public health emergency – forms the central narrative of We Were Here. Not unexpectedly the film contains grim images and records terrible grief, but We Were Here is, perhaps above all, a film about love: the love revealed by those who selflessly care for one another in the worst of times.
It’s the personal stories quietly recounted here that are both harrowing and inspiring – of a partner who dies on the way to hospital; of a mother who watched three sons die from AIDS; of an exhausting journey to the capital by gravely ill patients determined to lobby for funding for AIDS research; of patients who donated their eyes to help research into infections that were causing blindness. These accounts are not only intensely personal, but also illuminate the political and sexual issues of the period, and the role of women – particularly lesbians – in caring for and fighting for their gay brothers. I did not know, for example, that in the first year or so, when no-one, not even medical experts, knew how the disease was transmitted and many hospital staff were reluctant to work with them, many of the nurses who volunteered to tend AIDS patients were members of the San Franciscan lesbian community. As one interviewee observes, up to that point, gay men had not been noted for their solidarity with lesbians.
Ed Wolf speaks in his gentle manner of the time when he worked as a volunteer care worker for the Shanti Project. Guy Clark, who sold flowers on the street in the Castro district for 30 years, tells of giving away funeral flowers to dying men with no money so that they could honour their friends in death. Paul Boneberg, who arrived in the city as a hippie and became a leading gay activist, ultimately serving as executive director of Mobilization Against AIDS, speaks of the successful campaign to defeat a referendum proposal that would have led to AIDS sufferers being quarantined. The right-wing attacks on the civil rights of those suffering from AIDS failed, Boneberg suggests, because the determined and compassionate response of San Francisco’s gay and lesbian residents helped demolish the stereotype of homosexuals as selfish, amoral hedonists.
Some of the most moving moments come as sculptor Daniel Goldstein (above and below) is overcome with emotion as he speaks of losing two partners and countless friends to AIDS. ‘Two weeks after [his partner] Steve died, my best friend died, Peter. Two days before Steve died, another good friend died’, he says, taking deep breaths and his voice shaking. The deaths, he says, were ‘an avalanche’. Goldstein survived, though like very many others he remains HIV-positive, and went on to found Visual Aid and Under One Roof – nonprofit organizations that generate money for education, medical and support services.
Then there’s Eileen Glutzer, a feminist who, moved by what was happening, trained as a nurse in order to care for the dying at San Francisco General Hospital, and who went on to supervise the clinical trials of several AIDS drugs. She grimly recalls removing the eyes of patients, in the moments after their death, in order to gain an understanding of a mysterious virus that caused blindness in many AIDS victims.
In a review from the Sundance Film Festival, where We Were Here received commendation, Stephen Farber wrote:
This is a rare AIDS movie that is affirmative rather than depressing. That is because of the lessons the survivors gleaned from these dark days. They recall the spirit of caring and camaraderie that transformed the gay community in San Francisco and also awakened the compassion of many straight Americans who went through a sea change in their attitudes toward homosexuality.
Stephen Olden in his review of the film for the New York Times stated:
Throughout We Were Here there is not a hint of mawkishness, self-pity or self-congratulation. The humility, wisdom and cumulative sorrow expressed lend the film a glow of spirituality and infuse it with grace.
I just felt privileged to have spent 90 minutes in the company of these brave, dignified and compassionate individuals.