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PLGFF film review: ‘We Were Here’

It’s hard to figure out where to start when meditating on the importance of We Were Here, a documentary by David Weissman. It was the premier movie of the Portland Gay and Lesbian Film Festival which was not only a bold move but an great start to a necessary conversation. Weismann’s film illuminates the social, personal, political and cultural issues of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco. The film itself has a small scope and because of that scope- it is able to highlight the broader issues of this epidemic. Its characters: Ed Wolf- an AIDS activist and caregiver; Paul Boneberg- executive director of the GLBT Historical Society; Daniel Goldstein- a visual artist and founding President of Under One Roof; Guy Clark- a local queer florist based out of SF’s Castro District; and Eileen Glutzer- a nurse in the height of the crisis and feminist health care activist. Weismann’s focus on these characters and their personal experience allow the film a lot of depth that captures the profound personal stories that highlight a larger collective experience.

It is alarming to imagine a time where people did not have access to information. And without access to information many are simply left to desperation, conjecture, strange study, and a demand for good community care. During this epidemic in the 1980’s all people knew at the beginning is that there was a gay cancer and that it was killing almost everyone that they knew. And this cancer was effecting almost everyone. In 1979- ten percent of the gay male community was infected. By 1981- it doubled to twenty percent and at the end of 1981 it skyrocketed to fifty percent. How people responded to this crisis was intriguing, inspiring and calls into question how quickly a community can form under such an intense crisis.

Setting the stage for confusion and crisis- Weissman highlights some early coping methods. The imagery and narratives in this film not only convey the highly personal stories of those affected by the epidemic but the brave responses and simultaneous collective trauma on a community. Take: A scene of a drug store where people would post Polaroids of themselves infected and warning others that something was out there. A scene of lesbians in SF hosting blood drives for their queer brothers infected since this population was so demonized that their access to blood and other essentials to live were sparse. A scene of rapidly rising support and healthcare groups for those infected so people would not have to die alone. A backdrop of when healthcare is not healthcare but merely helping people die. A experimental drug that killed all but one of its patients.

How this community was able to provide those dying with dignity but without knowledge, resources, or broad-based public support set an unbelievable progressive model of healthcare where people bonded rapidly and loved in a time of a plague. And this love was unapologetic and fearless.

This film is not only important for historical reasons but it is imperative for inter-generational conversations in the queer community. The San Francisco model calls out how to build collective care, how to develop human structures to those in pain, and overcoming a larger society that renders queer people invisible and not worthy of love and care. Weissman writes:

“2011 marks 30 years since AIDS descended. Like an unrelenting hurricane, the epidemic roiled San Francisco for two decades and only began granting some reprieve with medical advancements in the late 90s. The death years of AIDS left the City ravaged and exhausted, yet, as in most of the developed world, the worst seems past. Though thousands are still living with HIV, and new infections continue at an alarming rate, the relentless suffering of the 80s and 90s has given way to a kind of calm, and, understandably, a degree of willful forgetfulness.”

We Were Here stops that collective forgetfulness and silence and forces the queer community to continue dialogs on not only stopping this epidemic but to recognizing an ethic of entanglement that is needed to love in a time of crisis.

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