What Happened Was This
BY Ari Karpel
February 26 2011 2:00 PM ET
Perhaps it’s easy to think that the story of AIDS in the gay community has been told, but a deeper examination of the mid-1980’s health crisis has really only begun. A new documentary, We Were Here, tackles the epic tale of the early years of AIDS in San Francisco, through intimate interviews with five people — four gay men and one straight woman — whose experiences with care giving, research, art, activism and personal loss poignantly illuminate an extraordinary time.
The movie opens in New York September 9, in Los Angeles September 16, and in San Francisco September. Lovingly directed by David Weissman and Bill Weber — whose 2002 documentary The Cockettes was a rousing, kick-up-your-heels celebration of gay life in the city by the bay — We Were Here has helped spark a dialogue between those who lived through the period and a younger generation of gay men who are often afraid to ask about it.
The Advocate sat down with Weissman and Weber at a busy film festival lounge in January, where their emotional discussion was distracted by some rather incongruous celebrity spotting.
The Advocate: You guys were here at Sundance with The Cockettes. How is this experience different?
Weber: It’s very different. This is an emotional rollercoaster. When we were here with The Cockettes, some woman came out of the screening crying. She said, “Thank you for not letting that story be forgotten.” David and I cried with her. That’s happening a lot more with this film. But it’s not all sadness.
Weissman: We cried pretty much every day in the editing room, but there was a point where we realized we weren’t crying at sadness, we were crying at beauty. Partly the beauty that was being expressed onscreen but partly a realization of what it might generate, the healing capacity of the film.
Weber (whispering): Jeremy Irons just walked by!
There’s a surprising lack of storytelling about this time.
That’s why I did this. I’ve experienced people telling me from opposite
sides of the spectrum – older guys feeling afraid to talk about the
epidemic with younger guys because they don’t want to sound old and they
don’t want to seem like they’re lecturing, and they don’t want to seem
like downers. And younger guys say, “We really want to know but we don’t
know if it’s OK to ask.” I thought maybe this is the moment, the moment
to talk about this.
Weber: We’ve had men say, “I forgot about this. I forgot I did that.”
I think there’s this process of post-traumatic denial, of moving on
that has been a healing experience after all the dying. But it’s just
buried. After seeing the movie, people come out saying they’re
exhilarated at having it spoken out loud: Yes, it did happen. Yes, we
did go through this. Yes, we did these things.
Weber: A huge
emotional aspect of this film is the community response and people are
really touched by that, to remember that we banded together, we helped
each other. That’s a really big part of the story, the community coming
together, taking care of each other in beautiful, beautiful ways. That
changed, in many ways, the course of how things are done in health care,
how things are done with activism.
[Watch the trailer for We Were Here below.]