Mourning and Militancy

David Weissman and Bill Weber, We Were Here, 2011, black-and-white and color film, 90 minutes. Production stills.

AT THE TIME of Harvey Milk’s murder in 1978, the virus that would come to be known as HIV was already present in San Francisco, with an estimated 10 percent of the city’s gay population unknowingly infected. By 1981, that number had risen to 50 percent. The 1980s would encapsulate the largest tragedy in the city’s history, but the decade was also—as We Were Here, a new documentary, suggests—a moment of great heroism and feats of compassion for both the living and the dying.

While such a vast topic would seem to necessitate a chaotic cast of thousands, director David Weissman instead focuses on five diverse individuals from the trenches: writer Ed Wolf, who began working as a volunteer in the city’s first AIDS hospital ward and now works in the field of HIV prevention; activist and current director of the GLBT Historical Society, Paul Boneberg; artist Daniel Goldstein, himself HIV positive for more than twenty years; Guy Clark, owner of a Castro flower shop; and nurse Eileen Glutzer, who worked on some of the earliest HIV/AIDS medical studies.

Weissman skillfully employs a talking-head approach, interspersed with filmic and photographic footage from the period, to convey an extremely painful history. We Were Here moves through the earliest days of the “gay cancer” to the formation of political activist groups such as ACT-UP in response to the political establishment’s indifference to the epidemic, and then into the mid-‘90s, when the obituary pages in the Bay Area Reporter finally began to diminish.

Thirty years on, the film reminds us of the cataclysmic demise of an entire generation of artists, cultural figures, activists, and people who perhaps never had the chance to realize their potential. We Were Here leaves us to wonder how different the world might look today if those lost to AIDS were still here to help shape it.

We Were Here runs at the Castro Theater in San Francisco February 25–March 3, 2011. For more details, click here.