AIDS doc great, but hard to watch
For anyone who lived through the AIDS plague and especially those of us who saw friends and loved ones through to their deaths, We Were Here amounts to a recovered-memory experience.
Was there really a time when a Lyndon Larouche could nearly pass draconian quarantine legislation, and when much of the population wanted HIV patients tattooed? (And was anybody aware of the irony of tattooing people who often resembled concentration camp inmates?).
The acclaimed documentary We Were Here marks a de facto 30th anniversary of AIDS' appearance (though it didn't have a name, gay men started showing up in clinics with anomalous symptoms in 1981).
And in the tradition of the best documentaries, it manages to be both macro and micro in scope. The narrators are five San Franciscans with five different relevant experiences.
Eileen Glutzer was a nurse at SF General's 5B, the first AIDS-dedicated ward anywhere. Paul Boneberg is a gay activist. Guy Clark is a gay African-American who moved to the city to become a florist, ironically at a time when funerals boomed. Ed Wolf is an amiable, self-deprecating guy who credits his shyness and ineptitude at one-night-stands for his still being alive.
And as a hopeful coda, Daniel Goldstein is an AIDS survivor (thanks to the medical advances of recent years), one who outlived the "plague" years and at least one partner.
There's a sweetness and tiredness to all their stories. For a city the size of San Francisco to lose 15,000-plus of its most active, youthful citizens is nothing short of a disaster. Given the number of them who lived within a mile of the corner of Castro and Market Streets, it was more like the dropping of a bomb.
Make no mistake, this is a hard movie to watch -- particularly if some of the stories are analogous to personal experience. When Ed recounts hearing the father of a counselling client say, "It's harder to find out my son is a fag than to find out he's going to be dying soon," it almost mirrored the words I once heard come out of a friend's father's mouth.
And then there are the images, of the ravages of Kaposi's Sarcoma and pneumocystic pneumonia, some of them artfully presented (in one case as a series of shockingly compelling skeletal nudes, reminiscent of the controversial 1991 Benetton ads that featured dying AIDS activist David Kirby).
Finally, there are the obituaries, an endless array of them featuring the oxymoronic pictures of robust, seemingly invulnerable, young men -- a parade of the dead that leads, narratively, to the impressive display of the AIDS Quilt on the White House grounds.
We Are Here does manage to end hopefully. The crisis, it is suggested, did much to mend a schism between gay men and lesbians. And it also ironically "credits" the hate of the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells for shocking the public to stronger support for a gay community in crisis.
In these days of epidemiological awareness, we know there'll be a next time, with different details. Amid its pathos, We Were Here is a cautionary tale for when that time arrives.