We Were Here
It is a tragic and heart wrenching fact that you cannot have any real discussion about the LGBT community's past without including the ravages that HIV/AIDS left within it. The effects of the disease very much emaciated whole generations of LGBT people, regardless of whether these people were actually infected or not. Entire communities fell, whole families ripped apart within months. Few areas felt it as deeply as those of the major cities in the United States, such as New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. The stunning David Weissman documentary "We Were Here" explores the years leading up to the AIDS crisis in the 80s and details the way its effects are felt even today.
"We Were Here" is smart in its approach to this matter in that it doesn't attempt to fully document the time period. It focuses on a few different perspectives from within the Castro to paint a painfully real picture of what it was like to live in the midst of a crisis. Taking in-depth accounts from a nurse, a street flower vendor, volunteers, and those who were simply immersed in the community and lived long enough to watch most of it die, "We Were Here" is a simplistic documentary. It doesn't get bogged down in medical discussions or in political discourse. It, of course, cannot completely ignore such things but it largely focuses on the personal stories of a few members of the community who are educated on what happened and can give a real account of what it felt like.
Beyond simply a series of overwhelmingly upsetting stories, "We Were Here" also employs the use of chilling photographs and video from the time period. Easily the most painful technique the documentary uses to illustrate the loss in San Francisco in the 1980's was the periodic scroll of obituaries shown over top of some of the more personal stories. A beautifully tragic tribute to those who had suffered.
However, despite its masterful depiction of just how horrific the HIV/AIDS crisis was in San Francisco, this isn't the message or intent of "We Were Here." More accurately, it displays the unique and almost unprecedented level of response seen there. Members of every community devoting their time, money, and hearts in an effort to save their neighbors and find a cure.
"We Were Here" is an essential documentary. Not just for the LGBT community and not just for those affected by HIV/AIDS. It is an illuminating illustration on the power and strength a group of people can have, especially in the face of adversity. It is the rare documentary that has the privilege of displaying real events as they happened and go on to inspire and motivate the viewer to become involved.
While the DVD was light on extras, I was shocked while scrolling through them that the early 1990's commercial campaign "Uninfected =/= Unaffected" was one of the most intense moments of the documentary. A series of short interviews with mostly HIV-negative gay men and their family members, it is a fascinating look into why this is disease must be an important battle for everyone, not just those unlucky enough to get infected. Other than that there were not really any extras of notes, but this is the type of film that simply didn't need any.
"We Were Here"