WE WERE HERE documents the coming of what was called the “Gay Plague” in the early 1980s. It illuminates the profound personal and community issues raised by the AIDS epidemic as well as the broad political and social upheavals it unleashed. It offers a cathartic validation for the generation that suffered through, and responded to, the onset of AIDS. It opens a window of understanding to those who have only the vaguest notions of what transpired in those years. It provides insight into what society could, and should, offer its citizens in the way of medical care, social services, and community support.
Early in the epidemic, San Francisco’s compassionate, multifaceted, and creative response to AIDS became known as “The San Francisco Model”. The city’s activist and progressive infrastructure that evolved out of the 1960’s, combined with San Francisco’s highly politicized gay community centered around the Castro Street neighborhood, helped overcome the obstacles of a nation both homophobic and lacking in universal healthcare. In its suffering, San Francisco mirrors the experience of so many American cities during those years. In its response, The San Francisco Model remains a standard to aspire to in seeking a healthier, more just, more humane society.
2011 will mark 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 utilizes San Francisco’s experience with AIDS to open up an overdue conversation both about the history of the epidemic, and the lessons to be learned from it.
WE WERE HERE focuses on 5 individuals – all of who lived in San Francisco prior to the epidemic. Their lives changed in unimaginable ways when their beloved city changed from a hotbed of sexual freedom and social experimentation into the epicenter of a terrible sexually transmitted plague. From their different vantage points as caregivers, activists, researchers, as friends and lovers of the afflicted, and as people with AIDS themselves, the interviewees share stories which are not only intensely personal, but which also illuminate the much larger themes of that era: the political and sexual complexities, the terrible emotional toll, the role of women – particularly lesbians – in caring for and fighting for their gay brothers.
Archival imagery conveys an unusually personal and elegiac sense of San Francisco in the pre-AIDS years, and a window into the compassionate and courageous community response to the suffering and loss that followed. And it also conveys in a very visceral sense the horrors of the disease itself.
As a filmmaker and political activist who arrived in SF in 1976 and was deeply impacted by the epidemic, director David Weissman brings a unique personal understanding to this history.