We Were Here: On the frontline of AIDS in the ‘80s
“None of my friends are around from the beginning, so I want to tell their stories as much as I want to tell my story,” artist Daniel Goldstein tells us in We Were Here.
The “beginning” he refers to is in 1981, when a mysterious “gay cancer” — later to be known as AIDS — has begun its decimation of San Francisco's gay community.
Goldstein, a long-term survivor living with HIV who lost two lovers during that devastating first decade, is one of five people who look back at a time of fear, discrimination and hopelessness.
But if there's a lesson to be drawn from We Were Here, it is that AIDS was also a catalyst for hope.
That while men who had flocked to California's gay mecca, San Francisco, were dying in terrifying numbers, the disease also galvanized the community to care for those suffering; that it helped to heal divisions between gay men and lesbians as they struggled for equality; that it sped up the trial process for new drugs and that, in the end, it gave meaning and purpose to people's lives, including the dying.
The documentary also hears from Guy Clark, a street vendor for 28 years in the city's Castro District who long ago last track of how many funerals he provided flowers for; Eileen Glutzer, a registered nurse who was among those who “came out here because we didn't quite fit where we were” and cared for the dying in San Francisco General Hospital's ward 5-B; Ed Wolf, who became a volunteer caregiver for those in their last days; and Paul Boneberg, who became a community activist.
The war-zone stories they tell are heartbreaking but also life-affirming. There are moments throughout when voices break and eyes well with tears as they recall friends and loved ones lost.
The documentary takes us from the heady days of the late 1970s when the gay-rights movement — spurred on by the anti-war and women's movements — began to become more publicly assertive, to the early years of the disease to the first trial of an AIDS drug that only led to terrible suffering, to the mid-1980s when a Los Angeles Times poll find half of the respondents in Ronald Reagan's America wanted to quarantine the infected and prominent fundamentalist Christian leaders declared AIDS a judgment from God.
Throughout the struggle, though, we see people whose lives are united by shared loss but also enriched by camaraderie and the coming together of community. We see people who learn to move past feelings of powerlessness to find peace and personal strength.
With the addition of sometimes-haunting archival images, We Were Here takes us back to a terrible but remarkable time in human history. It is both a testament to the fallen and a series of life lessons from five brave survivors, lessons about finding the best in ourselves in the worst of times.