In the summer of 2008, I began the process of creating a documentary about San Francisco at the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. As one who’d immigrated to The City in the gay glory years of the 1970s, I’d experienced our community’s exuberanc, and the subsequent AIDS-induced suffering and response firsthand.
This was not something I would ever have imagined myself doing. After completing The Cockettes with Bill Weber in 2002, I wasn’t sure I was interested in making another documentary at all — certainly not one dealing with such traumatizing subject matter. But sometimes ideas can be germinating invisibly within, awaiting the right catalyst to bring them into blossom.
In the late 1980s it had occured to me that if any of us survived that terrible plague, there would come a time when we would need to share our stories — for our own healing and to help subsequent generations understand and honor what we went through, in all its complexity. Having Holocaust history in my family, I was well aware of the long silence of many concentration-camp survivors, who were often unable to find words to do justice to the horrors they’d suffered, hoping futilely for refuge in forgetfulness.
The catalyst for We Were Here came from a boyfriend who was much younger than I, also a filmmaker. Many times, he’d heard me speak about my years in San Francisco, my stories of loss and community resilience, and urged me to make a film. My initial reluctance was quickly supplanted by clarity that this was a film that needed to be made, that it needed to be made by someone who’d lived through it, that now was the time. And I realized that I felt personally ready to revisit that painful and complicated history.
We Were Here has taken me on an incredible journey of rediscovery — of forgotten details of the terrible suffering, of moments of extraordinary generosity and courage, of residual guilt and shame for when those qualities were not easily accessible, but, mostly, of a kind of bewilderment that this whole nightmare actually happened.
The AIDS epidemic is the dominant piece of LGBT history since Stonewall. It’s a mind-boggling, but inescapable, truth. The political mobilization the epidemic necessitated; the healing of rifts between lesbians and gay men; the visibility that AIDS forced upon many who’d been reluctant to come out; and, ultimately, the increased support and compassion from the nongay world have hugely shaped the reality in which gays and lesbians now live.