Tuesday, June 19, 2012

We Were Here

Between the end of the Flower Power and the arrival of the HIV virus in the United States, San Francisco was the “Mecca” of the American gay people. With the rise of Harvey Milk as the spokesperson of their rights, and availability of acceptance, and being a place of hedonistic pleasures, young people from all over the country thronged the streets of the Bay Area, “to be gay.” Daniel says: If you had a bus ticket, it better be for San Francisco. Because that’s where everyone was going.” The Castro district and the surrounding areas were filled with young, handsome men ever ready to have sex with another man — the more the merrier. How much sex can you have? Someone asked. A lot actually, if you think about it.

Everything was perfect. Then Harvey Milk was shot dead in 1978, and as the 1980s arrived, things had taken a worse turn, with those handsome, hedonistic, carefree young men showing symptoms of unheard of diseases, like Kaposi’s sarcoma, or some other ailment that can be found only in sheep, and they started to drop dead. By every passing day, more and more people started to fall sick; it was beginning to turn into an epidemic. Nobody knew what the disease was. There was a large scale panic and stigma. They called it “gay plague” or “gay cancer”, as it appeared that most of the victims were active homosexual men. By the time doctors discovered the virus and figured out how it spread, half of the young men in San Francisco were already dead, or dying. The situation had already worsened by the time doctors started to prescribe a series of drugs to combat the condition, which, in common parlance, came to be known as the cocktail drug.

All this was almost 30 years back. Things have changed considerably since then, despite the fact that AIDS continues to kill people. The queer identity itself has evolved. There is more awareness. Now, the queer community doesn’t need acceptance, they need the rights, the rights to merry, which has now become an election issue in the US.

In this context, ‘We Were Here’ (2011), is a beautiful and heartbreaking documentary by David Weissman, visits the past and recreates the stories of those “AIDS Years” with the help of personal interviews, photographs and newspaper clippings. As one of the interviewees mentions, it was like a war zone those day, and even those who survived, could not escape the battle scars.

To give credit where it’s due, ‘We Were Here’, as the title sounds, isn’t a melodramatic story of a disease, of loss, neither it is a smug tale of survival. Instead the film tells the story of a time of personal crisis and how a few individuals responded to it. It was a unique time when a utopia turned into a nightmare. Already spurned by society and family, those gay men, now dying, had no one but themselves, and the community, and the community rose to the occasion, with more strength than anyone could ever imagine. As the virus almost destroyed a generation, it was also the triumph of the gay rights movement, when the gay men did all they could to help their lovers, friends, everything culminating into movements like ACT UP, with activists screaming “Silence = death.”

The film features four men and one woman, who were there in the middle of all this (one of them being HIV+ himself. The respondents recount their own stories of the AIDS years, how it started, how they lost their lovers, friends, and how they cope with it, all in simple matter-of-fact manner, without trying to manipulate the emotions of the audience. This is the film’s greatest strength — its stoicism. And you feel for those people because they are still trying to make sense of life after what happened. As Daniel says, people say I’m brave to have gone through all this. But, it’s not the case. He was in the middle of this battleground, and he had no choice but to fight it and hope.

The film ends with a sense of muted optimism, as Daniel says how after all these years he had allowed himself to hope for the future, again, despite the fact that he still missed his lovers, friends, who did not make it.

The Official Description: “We Were Here documents the coming of what was called the "Gay Plague" in the early 1980s. It illuminates the profound personal and community issues raised by the AIDS epidemic as well as the broad political and social upheavals it unleashed. It offers a cathartic validation for the generation that suffered through, and responded to, the onset of AIDS. It opens a window of understanding to those who have only the vaguest notions of what transpired in those years. It provides insight into what society could, and should, offer its citizens in the way of medical care, social services, and community support.

Writes Ann Hornaday: ... The tragic but empowering arc of the gay community's response to AIDS is limned with acumen and sensitivity in "We Were Here," David Weissman and Bill Weber's documentary that is all the more moving for being so lucidly understated. Interviewing four men and a female nurse who were on the front lines during the most deadly years of the "gay cancer," as it was known in the early 1980s, the filmmakers take viewers back to those first vague glimmers of distress, then plunge them headlong into the crisis at its most florid. "How were you getting it? Who were you getting it from? Who was giving it to who?" Ed Wolf, an early caregiver, recalls the questions as the panic that set in ... As an activist named Paul Boneberg recalls in the film, his friends' and neighbors' immediate impulse to care for the sick and dying "was a response America should be proud of." He's right, and "We Were Here" pays eloquent homage to men and women who deserve to be celebrated and remembered as heroes...
The Complete Review Here.

Writes Stephen Cole: ‘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. 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’ (2011).
The Complete Review Here.

Writes Stephen Holden: “There was nothing extraordinary about the fact that you lose the people you love because it’s going to happen to all of us,” observes Ed Wolf, a gentle, gay San Franciscan in his mid-50s who devoted years to counseling dying AIDS patients during the peak of the epidemic. “It’s just that it happened in this targeted community of people who were disenfranchised and separated from their families. And a whole group of other people stepped up and became their family.” ...
The Complete Review Here.

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