The modern trend with documentaries seems to be that more is better. Films by Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock, and even Errol Morris are packed, sometimes cluttered, with stock footage, animations, re-enactments, comic stunts, and more superfluous footage. Sometimes these tactics work in challenging the truth and reality of the stories being presented (mostly in Morris’s case). Other times I find myself wishing that the filmmakers would strip their films down and let the stories of those being interviewed drive the action.
Thus David Weissman’s documentary We Were Here, about the AIDS disaster in San Francisco, is a more than welcome relief. The film is about as stripped down as documentaries get with little more than interviews with five individuals interspersed with the occasional still photograph. What makes the film work is that the stories being shared are so remarkably intimate, so heartbreakingly tragic, and so revealing about society then and now that there is nary a dull moment. The film does not distract us with out of context statistics, nor does it have an overt political agenda. It uses five people’s stories about one tragic time period to portray an inspirational message about hope and community in times of great need.
There have been endless plays written, films made, and stories told about the time period in the late 1970s through early 1990s when AIDS devastated the gay community in San Francisco and around the country. However, it is a story that needs to be retold so that the gravity of the situation is never forgotten. In college a professor who lived through the ordeal explained to me that HIV and AIDS are responsible for wiping out nearly an entire generation of young men. What is both tragic and inspirational is that during this outbreak, most of the country turned their backs on this community, forcing them to rely only on one another.
Five individuals who lived through the ordeal are profiled in We Were Here. Guy was a flower seller who provided arrangements for countless funerals and watched his young customers quickly whither as they were affected by the disease. Ed was a timid man who finally found acceptance in San Francisco only to watch friends and strangers get sick and die at the hospital where he volunteered. Eileen was a nurse at one of the only hospitals that accepted AIDS patients and she watched young men watch their boyfriends die only to get sick and die themselves months later. Paul was a counterculture hippy who became a leading activist in the fight against AIDS. Daniel lived through the death of two life partners and barely survived after being infected himself.
We hear each individuals stories beginning before, during, and after the AIDS pandemic. The tone shifts from joyful discovery of the niche area that seemed built just for them to tragic helplessness when a force nobody understands takes over. Ultimately the pervading theme, however, is hope and unity as the group understands that despite being abandoned by most of the world, they still have one another. It is truly admirable that none of the individuals ever blame their families or government or neighbors outside of San Francisco for doing so little. Instead they rejoice in the fact that they remained a tight knit community through it all and emerged as a whole, despite inside and outside forces trying to tear them apart.
The five individuals who are interviewed are all great storytellers, which allowed Weissman to use a minimal amount of spectacle to tell their stories. There is very little music used, other than for transitions, and the interviews mostly occur against still photographs ala Ken Burns, rather than video and news footage. Daniel is particularly heartbreaking as he recounts the very moment when he watched the love of his life die beside him. The graphic nature of his description creates a more vivid portrait in the imagination than any actual footage could.
There are some elements that Weissman kept in that seemed unnecessary, like the fight over the public bathhouses, and others I wish he would have expanded more on, like the nonprofit organizations that kept the community from being devastated by poverty as well as disease. We Were Here is not the definitive AIDS movie. However, its purpose is to show how a community overcame one of the most devastating pandemics in history by relying on each other and to show that the effects of the disaster still linger today. In that sense it was enormously effective.
Bottom Line: We Were Here is a heartbreaking AIDS documentary and a minimalist portrait of the importance of community in times of crisis.