We Were Here: Recalling the Early AIDS Crisis in San Fran

During the early '80s, the Bay Area was initially slow to recognize the "gay cancer" that, one subject recalls in the documentary We Were Here, was greeted with a kind of DIY epidemiology. He remembers reading a flyer in a drugstore window, illustrated with Polaroids of the poster's Kaposi's sarcoma lesions, warning his fellow gay men about this unnamed new malady. A nurse—the five interview subjects are identified only by first name—tells how AIDS wards and clinical trials were developed ad hoc, as the medical community struggled to understand and treat the fast-spreading virus. A counselor remembers how he was a failure at anonymous sex—here he hilariously demonstrates his best come-hither look—but a success as a hospice worker, providing intimate friendship and support to the afflicted. Rather than focusing on one particular hero (Harvey Milk is glimpsed in old TV footage and headlines), We Were Here is about the many, the community in microcosm. By reducing the AIDS epidemic to a few speakers, and distilling those speakers to near-anonymous voices, David Weissman and Bill Weber's documentary both personalizes and generalizes the catastrophe. Speaking with no small share of survivors' guilt, the five get to represent the roughly 15,000 who died before effective drug treatments were introduced in the late '90s. It's a terrible responsibility, eloquently served.

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