Every year, at least one film in the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival garners so much audience support and community spirit that I'm reminded not only of why I love film but also why I'm grateful to be a part of this eccentric and beautiful multi-lettered community. This year, one of those films was We Were Here: Voices from the AIDS Years in San Francisco, which previewed yesterday to a full house at the Castro Theater.
Director David Weissman and his editor/codirector Bill Weber, the documentarians who brought us The Cockettes nine years ago, that dizzying paean to early '70s hippie genderqueer gay counterculture, have created an entirely different animal with We Were Here. While The Cockettes hinted at the epidemic to come—many of the Cockettes and their collaborators, like disco diva Sylvester, were felled by the disease—We Were Here is at times a eulogy to the decade that followed, looking at AIDS head-on. It's a perspective our community as a whole has been slow to adopt, but one that this film may well ready us for.
In the 30 years since AIDS first made its appearance in San Francisco's gay community (back when I was starting kindergarden in the East Bay Area), much has been learned about the virus's treatment and prevention. But despite all this acquired knowledge, young gay men are still acquiring HIV at alarming rates in 2010. Many my age and younger seem totally unaware not only of the history of the "lost generation," but also unaware of the prevention methods our community learned in the intervening 20 years. To many men 35 and under, it's a laughing matter, or at most a faint spectre. Many men over 35 who lived through the crisis are also either unaware or in post-traumatic denial about the lingering epidemic, but to most of my friends just 10 years older than me, it's a very real part of their daily lives, as well as a haunting memory.
This topic, with its galaxy-sized weight, can get overwhelming in the blink of an eye, so We Were Here tackles it slowly, building on a brief visual history of the burgeoning post-Stonewall gay community in San Francisco, and settling into interviews with just five well-chosen, eloquent individuals who survived the '80s and have come out with a goldmine of wisdom to share.
And to me, that's the greatest gift of this film. Sure we've acquired medical knowledge that can help with prevention—and certainly, that knowledge needs to be deepened and shared until HIV can be sent backstage to join polio and the bubonic plague—but more than medical knowledge, the film seems to ask, what wisdom do we have to share? What did the AIDS crisis teach people that can now be passed on to the next generation of queer men, and, more broadly, to the culture as a whole? If there is any meaning or utility to be had from all these horrific deaths—deaths that glutted the obitiuaries sections of gay newspapers worldwide for well over a decade—that usefulness has to be more than simply teaching young men: "Wear a condom" and "Don't do what we did" (the only messages I received when I first came out and began visiting the war-torn but reemerging Castro scene of the early 1990s).
"Don't do what we did" is an especially pernicious message. After all, so much of what queer people in the '70s, '80s, and '90s did was wonderful, and shouldn't be cordoned off into the same dark recesses where grief and survivor's guilt still linger. We Were Here offers hope that a change is coming: Weissman's film helped bring a whole audience out of the closet about their own grief, guilt, and wisdom.
Wisdom, more than anything, is what we need to heal—and to conquer the virus. And this film has more wisdom than just about any I've ever seen. Wisdom about loving ourselves enough to value our own lives as well as the lives and well-beings of our partners. Wisdom about queer men and women working through their differences and even taking care of each other. Wisdom about valuing our families of choice at least as much as we're taught to value married couples and nuclear families. Wisdom about knowing how and when to fight, and when to let go. Wisdom about how to turn anger into action. Wisdom about living with grief and loss, and the love and hope that seem to survive and return even after and within the worst of circumstances.
I'm grateful that I was there yesterday at the Castro Theater, but I hope We Were Here reaches a much wider, worldwide audience, so that the healing and dialogue can continue.
If you want to learn more about We Were Here, or if you want to help it reach more people, please contact David Weissman through the film's website, wewereherefilm.com.