The most gripping war movie you'll see this year, We Were Here tells first-hand the story of how AIDS attacked San Francisco, killing more than 15,000. Whole peer groups were happy, healthy, and then dead in months.
Survivor Ed Wolf, later an AIDS worker, remembers going with a friend to a double bill on Castro Street – Now, Voyager and Casablanca. He had pot and raced to a drug store to find papers. In the window were Polaroid pictures of a man with ghastly sores.
"Watch out guys, there's something out there," was scrawled underneath.
Returning to the theatre, he remembered his friend's eye sore. Wolf breathed in with a start. He wouldn't breathe out, not fully, for another decade.
Early in David Weissman's eloquent, overpowering documentary, we're shown a street-party photo. AIDS activist Paul Boneberg comments:
"HIV arrives in San Francisco in 1976 and by 1979 probably 10 per cent of gay men in that crowd were infected. By the time we discover something is happening in June, '81, 20 per cent are infected. By the time we get the test so people can find out if they're infected, close to 50 per cent of gay men in San Francisco are infected."
Survivors interviewed include an artist, Daniel Goldstein, a nurse, Eileen Glutzer, and a street florist, Guy Clark, who did too much pro-bono work in the eighties. Goldstein lost two partners and every close friend. Collectively, they sketch a heroic chronology of life during wartime, providing more drama than the fictional characters in Contagion.
And as in every war, there were reluctant heroes in San Francisco. A Los Angeles Times poll in the early 1980s suggested that 50 per cent of Americans favoured enforced quarantine for people with AIDS. Some hospitals didn't want AIDS patients. President Ronald Reagan refused to address the issue until 1987, after 21,000 Americans had died.
We Were Here tells the story of how gay San Francisco fought back, protecting its own. The gay community united. Lesbian health centres printed flyers proclaiming: "Our boys need blood."
Goldstein suspended a lucrative art career and devoted himself to dying friends.
"Why?" his father asked. "They're not your family."
"But you're wrong, Dad," the painter responded, his eyes red with tears. "They are my family."
Special to The Globe and Mail
We Were Here
- Directed by David Weissman
- Featuring Ed Wolf, Paul Boneberg, Daniel Goldstein, Guy Clark and Eileen Glutzer
- Classification: PG