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New documentary ‘We Were Here’ profiles earliest days of the AIDS crisis

By Matt Comer
Sunday, November 27, 2011
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This year marked the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the AIDS Crisis. The 1980s was a turbulent decade for the LGBT community and especially for gay men.

Marking the Crisis’ beginning has been difficult for the many who lived through it and lost friends, family and loved ones to the disease. For younger generations unfamiliar with the tragedy and urgency of the epidemic’s early years, noting the anniversary has been more academic than personal or emotional.

A participant at an HIV/AIDS demonstration. Photo: Marie Ueda.

This year, screenwriter and director David Weissman — whose credits include the 2000 film “The Family Man,” 2001’s “Evolution” and 2010’s “When in Rome” — releases his “We Were Here,” a documentary profiling the earliest days of the Crisis at its epicenter, San Francisco.

The disease ravaged the city and its gay-popular Castro St. neighborhoods. By 1979, one “We Were Here” interviewee estimates, close to 10 percent of the city’s gay population was already infected with HIV. By the time HIV tests became possible near the mid-1980s, nearly 50 percent or more of the city’s gay men had already been infected.

The Crisis’ history is emotional and complex — very often an equal mix of painful remembrance and triumphant celebration. But, of the many purposes Weissman hopes his film fulfills, he says bridging the gap between older and younger generations, and particularly between older and younger gay men, is among one of the most important. For him, it’s about sharing community and history.

Peter Berlin

David Weissman

qnotes had the opportunity to chat with Weissman via phone just weeks before his film hits pay-per-view and video-on-demand services across the country on Dec. 9. The film is also slated for a DVD release sometime around June 2012, when PBS’ “Independent Lens” showcases it.

Matt Comer: So, you moved to San Francisco in 1976, right? Why the move?

David Weissman:
I had been living in Venice Beach in Southern California. It was a bit bohemian, a poor people’s beach town. It was a wonderful, wonderful time and place there. But, Venice was gentrifying really fast and I realized that San Francisco was really where my people were, the sort of long-haired, artistic and politically-minded gay people. There was a huge community there unique to San Francisco.

Were you already out at the time?

It was a process, but, yes, I was already out. I was not so engaged in gay life in L.A. as much as I became engaged with it in San Francisco.

In your film, an interviewee says that HIV was already present in San Francisco as early as 1976. Then, according to your film, before anybody really knew there was anything wrong, a young man had posted photos of weird physical symptoms he was having on the glass window of a pharmacy. But, when was it that you got the first inclination that something was wrong?

I remember the very first article in Bay Area Reporter. In April 1981, there was a cluster of rare cancer found among gay men. In June of that year, another article originating from the Centers for Disease Control saying a cluster of rare pnuemonia had been found among gay men. So, I saw the very first press on it. I also remember seeing those photographs posted on the Star Pharmacy on Castro St. So, I was aware from the very beginning.

How did you react? Were you immediately scared or concerned or at the time, perhaps, you thought, oh, this is a fluke and it’ll pass?

I think everybody had their own particular combination of fear and denial that they worked through over time. I think initially we were kind of laughing about it. It was like we had our own gay everything — our gay mechanics and gay bankers — and now we have our own disease. I think pretty quickly it became clear that this was serious and once you knew someone who got sick you got scared pretty quickly.

How long did you live in San Francisco?

I still partially live there, actually. I was there full-time through 2004 and I’ve been back and forth from Portland since then.

So, this film is not a purely academic exercise for you, then. This is something you lived through.

It’s not academic at all — it’s one reason I decided to make the film. I felt like it was crucial that the story be told by someone who lived through it, rather than from an academic perspective. I’ve described it as me using these five people [interviewed in the documentary] to tell my own story.

Tell me a bit more: Why did you think it was so important for someone who lived through it to tell the story?

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