Documenting five testimonies of San Francisco’s AIDS crisis, Bill Weber and David Weissman’s We Were Here brings the battle to the people.
Apocalypse Now by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
It’s hard to wax analytical about such a simple, yet powerfully emotional documentary as Weissman and Weber’s We Were Here. Put simply, it’s five survivors of San Francisco’s Eighties’ Aids crisis bearing witness and remembering the loved ones who fell. With broken voiced interviewee upon teary-eyed talking head, We Were Here ramps up the emotion to a fever pitch as it recreates the gay community in the bay from its inception round Castro Street and the assassination of Harvey Milk to the present day. And while David Weissman and Bill Weber’s documentary couldn’t be more different to their Cisco drag pop pic The Cockettes, We Were Here in all its ugly, pointless tragedy is a homage to the Bay and its indefatigable denizens.
Like a companion piece to Stonewall Uprisingin the box set of Things The Family Fought For, We Were Here is a heartbreaking memorial to those who died during those dark days, their testimony borne through photos of their ravaged bodies and the subsequent obituary stills of these once beautiful young men. It’s not so much the story of a disease, but of a war calling the documentary’s participants to arms; Guy the flower seller and community observer donating flowers to those who can’t afford to bury their loved ones with dignity, Eileen the nurse who tries her hand at research when she can no longer bear just to help young men die, Ed the gay shanti volunteer who finds his calling counselling the dying, Paul the president of an LGBT group who finds himself at the pointed political end of the epidemic and Daniel, the artist living with HIV whose life was turned upside-down by grief. Twice.
Their testimonies are personal yet far-reaching, revolving round a community which only finds itself when put to the test. Working through the crisis chronologically, We Were Here marks the sea change from promiscuity to fear as the first lesions are photographed and posted in a pharmacy window. The Castro Street innocence with its bathhouses and camp cliques of leather, western and preppy boys is turned upside down by the trauma of the “gay cancer”. The murderer is already among them, in them. Friends, lovers and acquaintances die in days from Kapusces sarcoma and pneumonia. Those left, bereft and reeling. But slowly, panic and confusion is replaced by action, and reaction, as the community comes together to fight.
15,548 San Franciscans died in the AIDS crisis. A community decimated despite its political and social mobilisation; desperately urging the Government to do more with ‘Fighting For Our Lives’ and ‘Man Cannot Live On AZT Alone’ placards, helping the sick to die in comfort, preventing infection with testing and raising money for cures. Food banks and care programmes spring up, lesbians drive for blood with wartime placards ‘Our PWAs need blood’, and White House shaming quilts are sewn out of panels to memorialise dead lovers while foundation shops open, giving helpless relatives an opportunity to participate in the cause with a dollar and a thank you.
We Were Here goes beyond the historical facts and figures straight to the human cost, reframing The Bay Chronicle’s devastating feature spread of endless portraits of the dead, commemorated in remembrance. But also in its testimonies – the sisters who volunteer as nurses in Ward 13 to look after their gay brothers or the men who spend their free time counselling the dying. We Were Here conjures up a community suddenly beyond sex, money or aspiration, galvanised into action. And while the photos depict these emaciated AIDS patients as horrors from Bergen Belsen, the tragedy is more reminiscent of the First World War, hospital wards filled with the broken bodies of futureless young men.
It’s overwhelming. All one’s brothers-in-arms dead or dying, endless drugs trials which only increase the pain and accelerate death. Once appearance obsessed bodies now reduced to bone and lesioned skin, forced-smile parties to celebrate a friend’s suicide and a chance to say goodbye. But outside the barracks and the hospital ward, homophobia rages; politicians politick on manifestoes of quarantine or tattoos for the infected, absent fathers come to visit their dying sons, more distraught at their homosexuality than their imminent death. And while the battle is one for brothers, lovers and the family, its nurses and soldiers gradually withdraw, sick and tired – unable to care for another, love another or carry on the fight. Fortune wrinkles into a smile – prevention starts to take effect, medical treatments improve and gradually the casualties lessen. Finally, futures can be imagined again.
Using early home video, We Were Here shows the painful, domestic truth behind the crisis, the countless dying caught on magnetic tape, the hungry ghosts making their way back from the brink into the land of the living. It may have happened in San Francisco, but it’s a universal catastrophe, an integral part of gay culture everywhere – politically, historically, artistically and spiritually. And still people live with and fight against HIV, the war isn’t over. But through this valley of death, the Baysiders found a gay spirituality beyond egocentric sex and material pleasures and founded a new community. A new model army, and through the powerful rhetoric of Weissman and Weber’s well crafted and deeply moving film, it’s the draft for us all.
We Were Here is released in the UK on 25th November 2011