We Were Here is a superb oral history from the peak years of the AIDS crisis in San Francisco, which at one point was killing over 1,400 people annually. Director and producer David Weissman has created a powerful testimonial to an era that is starting to fade from the memories of some members of the queer community; as subject Ed Wolf pointed out in a discussion about his younger partner, we are entering an era where growing numbers of people were born after the epidemic began to be brought under control, when AIDS shifted from a life sentence to a chronic, but manageable, illness for people in the developed world.
In this documentary, interviews with Ed Wolf, Paul Boneberg, Daniel Goldstein, Guy Clark, and Eileen Glutzer are intercut with archival footage from the era, from the White Night riots to parties on Ward 5B, which became the first dedicated AIDS ward in the United States. Staffed entirely by volunteers in an era when people weren’t even sure how the disease was transmitted, it became a familiar place for many members of San Francisco’s gay community in the 1980s as they lost friends, neighbours, and lovers to the disease, sometimes in a very short period of time. Clark spoke about how someone would go into the hospital on Monday and die on Friday.
30 years ago, AIDS exploded onto the landscape in San Francisco, devastating a community of people who came to the city seeking family, love, and connections, and instead found a fatal virus. Perhaps the most remarkable accomplishment of We Were Here is an in-depth examination of how the gay and lesbian communities in San Francisco rose up in response to the AIDS crisis and an affirmation of the community’s hard work. It is a narrative of solidarity, ferocious activism, and the creation of a national movement.
The impact of the crisis both on the gay community itself and on the external perception of the community was critical. The turning point for the end of innocence in San Francisco began with the assassination of Harvey Milk, followed in short order by the development of growing numbers of inexplicable deaths, what was known as the ‘gay plague’ and later ‘gay-related immune deficiency’ and finally the human immunodeficiency virus. As the subjects in the documentary point out, the shadow of AIDS was already falling in San Francisco by 1976, when the virus was clearly present, and at its peak, over 50% of the population was infected. The devastation is hard to understand for those who who weren’t there, but We Were Here provides a glimpse of what it was like.
In the 1980s, obituaries for AIDS victims crowded publications in San Francisco as radical cultural shifts took place in the gay community. ‘Gay men weren’t really perceived as caregivers, but as fun people,’ and that shifted with the rising awareness of AIDS, the closure of the bathhouses, the development of the ‘San Francisco model’ of AIDS outreach, education, and activism. We Were Here critically follows the development and flourishing of that model, highlighting an era of activism that may come as a surprise to people unfamiliar with their history.
ACT UP, a key touchstone in the AIDS movement, used models that might be familiar to demonstrators on the streets of New York, Athens, and London today. An overwhelming tide of anger at budget cuts, slow government responses to rising social problems, and bigotry upswelled in the 1980s; many demonstrators around the world today are fighting the same battles. The AIDS movement was as much about civil rights as it was about access to health care; the right to receive care, the right to live freely in the community, the right to not be neglected, the right to be served at funeral homes. It intersects heavily, and for obvious reasons, with the disability rights movement, which continues the legacy of radical street actions through organizations like ADAPT.
What We Were Here reminds viewers of is that they must not turn away from their history. The events of the AIDS crisis resonate today, and the collection of oral history from this era is an important contribution to a body of knowledge that might otherwise be lost. As AIDS patients live for 20 or 30 years after diagnosis and the face of the disease changes, We Were Here is a reminder of what once was. And it’s a reminder of the battles fought on behalf of the current generation; the clinical trials, the outreach to medical professionals, the street protests, the lawsuits.
This was an era in which people could have lost hope, and yet the archival footage in We Were Here is a defiant rejection of losing hope. ‘We just did it,’ Daniel Goldstein said, talking about the upswelling of support and activism from within the community. People banded together in an extraordinary way across divides to fight the disease and centre AIDS patients in decision making, with everything from hospice care to taking care of pets for people in the hospital. They didn’t stop there, also taking to the streets to demand justice, to protect funding, to fight for clinical trials and research and acknowledgment.
What was effectively a national shame for the US government, which was alarmingly slow to act on the crisis, particularly in the early days when the victims were primarily young gay men and injection drug users, was a triumph for the queer community. This should not be forgotten by the next generation, and We Were Here is a stark and haunting reminder of a very dark era in our shared history.