'We Were Here' - An Aids Memoir

'We Were Here' 'We Were Here' - Robert Pruza
Posted: Mon Nov 21 2011

David Weissman's new film charts the impact of Aids on San Francisco.

If, like me, you lived through the worst years of the Aids crisis, watched friends die and went to far too many funerals, you might approach David Weissman's new film with some trepidation. I know I did. 'We Were Here' documents the arrival and impact of Aids in San Francisco, told through the personal testimonies of five people who loved and lost during that terrible time.

Here you have an artist, an activist, a florist, a nurse and a man who volunteered as a buddy at a time when many people with Aids were left to die alone. But here also you have inspiring tales of courage and community, of friendships forged and battles fought. There's a lot of grief in this film, a lot of painful reminders. But there's also a lot of love.

'I've seen the movie with a lot of different audiences now,' says Weissman. 'Obviously everyone comes to it from their own vantage point. People who lived through that experience are finding it incredibly validating. And the younger guys who see it are completely blown away by it. I think they're deeply moved by the sense of community that the film evokes. I think they're shocked at the enormity of what we went through. So often what I hear from young gay men is, “I had no idea.” They may have some knowledge about safer sex and why they should use condoms, but they have no idea of what actually happened.'

What happened was something on a par with living through a war. Of the five people interviewed in the film, the artist, Daniel, regularly chokes up as he describes losing two lovers and nearly all of his friends. The nurse, Eileen, talks about the 'overwhelming' amount of grief she experienced, and how she was never just crying for one person, she was 'crying for everyone'. For me, this was always the hardest part of the epidemic. The funerals blurred into one. In just a few years, I lost half of my friends.

'I've heard that from a lot of young people who've seen the film,' says Weissman. 'That it's the first time, viscerally, that they've been able to get a sense of what that era was like. And I think, partially, it's because there's a similarity between the way the guys in the '70s looked and the way a lot of young gay men look now. So they're able to look at the screen and see their friends and see themselves. And that raises all sort of questions. “How would I respond?” “What would I do?” '

Clearly, things have moved on a lot since Aids first arrived 30 years ago. As the film reminds us, in 1998 San Francisco's free weekly newspaper, The Bay Area Reporter, ran the headline 'No Obits': it speaks volumes that, at the time, this was considered newsworthy. Thanks to new drug treatments, HIV is no longer the death sentence it once was. But there's also a greater sense of complacency. New infections continue to rise at an alarming rate. 'We Were Here' goes on general release in the run-up to World Aids Day. What kind of impact does Weissman think the film can have?

'The prevention value of the film is something that's been discussed with me since day one,' he says. 'Some people think that being reminded of how fatal the disease once was will carry some kind of prevention message, which I don't think is necessarily the case. But I do think that there's a powerful prevention message in the movie, and that's the positive message of community. That sense of history, of how we got to where we are today, of how we as a community learned to take care of ourselves and each other - I think that has been a really positive message for young guys, and one that makes them think about how they relate to their peers and their sexual partners.'

There's an interesting point in the film where one man, Ed, talks about having a younger lover, and how he finds this easier because his lover doesn't bring the same emotional baggage to the relationship.

'I talk about this a lot in Q&As,' says Weissman. 'Ed has a younger lover. Daniel also has a younger lover. And the idea to make this movie was suggested to me by a younger lover of mine. My intention with this film is very much about helping to facilitate an inter-generational dialogue about this period in our history. It's so hard for gay men to speak across different generations. There's so much discomfort around sexuality, and yet we have no other way of transmitting our history. We certainly don't learn it from our parents. So I really hope the film helps younger gay men to feel more comfortable asking older men about their stories. And I hope older gay men will feel more comfortable telling them. We have a lot of wisdom on top of our wounds, and these are wonderful things to share.'

At the end of the film, Ed talks about 'hungry ghosts' haunting the Castro district - people so consumed with grief, they've been unable to move on. 'That's been getting an enormous reaction from audiences,' says Weissman. 'And I think to some degree, what those of us who lived through that era have not acknowledged is the extent to which our wounds are unhealed. There is a healing process that we still need to go through. When I was making the film, so many people said to me, “Oh, I don't know if I could see that. It will unleash all of this buried pain.” And my feeling has always been, well if that pain is there, it's not doing you any good keeping it buried. I think the catharsis the film offers can be very powerful for a lot of people'.

It certainly was for me.

'We Were Here' is on general release from Nov 25.

‘We Were Here' is on general release from Nov 25.