Homosexuality was a mental illness to be “cured” until LGBTQ activists fought the Establishment—and won.
When AIDS arrived in San Francisco in 1981, it decimated a community. But it also brought people together in inspiring and moving ways.
David Weissman moved to San Francisco in 1976. A longhaired refugee from the rapidly gentrifying bohemian enclave of Venice Beach, CA, David was elated to find himself in such a beautiful city overflowing with activists, artists, performers, poets, hippies, drag queens and Deadheads. There were rebels and dreamers of every variety, thousands of whom… Show more were gays and lesbians, creating what was often referred to as the "Gay Mecca." David remembers the thrill of being at Harvey Milk's camera store on the night of his election, and at the victory party for the No on 6 Campaign — the first major electoral victory for the emerging gay movement. Devastated by Harvey's assassination just months later, David became more active in SF politics — working on political campaigns and as a Legislative Assistant to San Francisco Supervisor Harry Britt. In 1981, David began taking filmmaking courses at City College of San Francisco. For years David made short films, which screened widely in festivals around the world. He also worked on other people's films (including Crumb, and In The Shadow of the Stars) and taught filmmaking classes. As people began to die of AIDS in the early and mid-80s, this began to affect the content of David's films, particularly in the short film Song From an Angel which featured San Francisco performer Rodney Price doing a song and tap-dance about his own death, two weeks before he died of AIDS. In 1990, David was the first recipient of the Sundance Institute's Mark Silverman Fellowship for New Producers, which included a four-month producing internship on the Joel and Ethan Coen's Barton Fink. In the mid-90s David became interested in HIV prevention policy, and independently produced a groundbreaking series of Public Service Announcements that specifically addressed the complex emotional and psychological stresses facing HIV-negative gay men living in the midst of the epidemic. In 1998, David teamed up with his friend Bill Weber to co-direct the feature length documentary, The Cockettes. After a 2002 Sundance premiere, theatrical and broadcast release, The Cockettes received the LA Film Critics'Award for Best Documentary of The Year. The Weissman/Weber team reunited in 2008 to begin work on We Were Here. Show less
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.
Early in the epidemic, San Francisco's compassionate, multifaceted, and creative response to AIDS became known as "The San Francisco Model." The city's activist and progressive infrastructure that had evolved out of the 1960s combined with San Francisco's highly politicized gay community centered around the Castro Street neighborhood, and helped overcome the obstacles of a nation both homophobic and lacking in universal healthcare. In its suffering, San Francisco mirrors the experience of so many American cities during those years. In its response, The San Francisco Model remains a standard to aspire to in seeking a healthier, more just, more humane society.
It has been 30 years since AIDS descended. Like an unrelenting hurricane, the epidemic roiled San Francisco for two decades, and only began granting some reprieve with medical advancements in the late '90s. The death years of AIDS left the city ravaged and exhausted, yet, as in most of the developed world, the worst seems past. Though thousands are still living with HIV, and new infections continue at an alarming rate, the relentless suffering of the '80s and '90s has given way to a kind of calm, and, understandably, a degree of willful forgetfulness. We Were Here utilizes San Francisco's experience with AIDS to open up an overdue conversation both about the history of the epidemic, and the lessons to be learned from it.We Were Here focuses on five individuals — all of whom lived in San Francisco prior to the epidemic. Their lives changed in unimaginable ways when their beloved city changed from a hotbed of sexual freedom and social experimentation into the epicenter of a terrible sexually transmitted plague. From their different vantage points as caregivers, activists, researchers, as friends and lovers of the afflicted, and as people with AIDS themselves, the interviewees share stories which are not only intensely personal, but which also illuminate the much larger themes of that era: the political and sexual complexities, the terrible emotional toll, and the role of women – particularly lesbians – in caring for and fighting for their gay brothers.
Archival imagery conveys an unusually personal and elegiac sense of San Francisco in the pre-AIDS years, and a window into the compassionate and courageous community response to the suffering and loss that followed. And it also conveys in a very visceral sense the horrors of the disease itself.