What Happened Was This

By Ari Karpel

Originally published on Advocate.com February 26 2011 1:00 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.
Weissman:
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.”

Weissman:
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.]

WE WERE HERE AIDS POSTER BOY X390 (COURTESY) | ADVOCATE.COMHow so?
Weber: The hospice movement got a huge boost with this. If you look now at women with breast cancer, their activist role came out of PWA’s going out there and saying, “We’re fighting for ourselves.” The involvement of volunteers in healthcare organizations…

Weissman: The alternative ways of dealing with memorials.... Not to mention the fact that there is a powerful, visible community of people that in many ways was built through the response to the epidemic. People forget that the AIDS epidemic started 12 years after Stonewall. It’s not like we were an established community; we were in San Francisco, but even there gay bashings would happen all the time. There was tremendous resistance to us, and our own sense of self-worth was still fresh. All of a sudden, a sexually transmitted disease comes along and we start to think, “Oh, maybe we are being punished by god.” So all of the things we take for granted in terms of our self-acceptance and our acceptance by society did not exist. All of these things had to be worked out, internally and externally, in the midst of the leadership getting sick and dying.

Do you think the gay community has carried this on since, or has it fallen away?
Weissman: I think the sense of emergency propels that degree of engagement. And with the emergency not being there the community doesn’t exist as much. So, it’s a mixed blessing. But I think that the instinct towards community is inherent in certain people, the desire for it. I saw in many young people’s response to Milk, some of them came out and went “Wow!” about being exposed to that sense of community engagement.

Weber: Oh, look, that’s Kevin Spacey!WE WERE HERE SHANTI X390 (COURTESY) | ADVOCATE.COM

You’ve both said that you hesitated to make this movie. Why?
Weber: David’s a big pain in the ass to work with.

Weissman: Please say that he said that ironically.

Weber (smiling):
The story scared me. It’s too big. It’s this monster story. I thought,
It’s bound to piss people off. As soon as you start telling the story,
people are going to say, “Where’s my part of the story you left out?”
And there were so many beautiful things that happened in San Francisco
that we don’t even talk about: the [AIDS Memorial] Quilt gets a minute,
ACT Up gets 45 seconds, Ward 5A gets two minutes, when it should be a
miniseries. The AIDS Foundation gets a float in the parade, when it’s a
huge story right there. So it was like, How can we do this?!

Weissman:
It seemed like a such a minefield, but I can’t tell you how many people
who lived through it have come up to me and said, “Thank you, you’ve
got it.”

Weber: I’m doing more celebrity spotting. Who’s the guy who was in The Devil Wears Prada?

Stanley Tucci? 










Weber: Yes, he just walked in.

So, what was your experience at the time?
Weissman: I’m probably in the middle range between the people who lost everybody they knew and the people who didn’t lose anybody. But I lived in San Francisco through the entire thing. All of us were confronted on a regular basis with what to do when someone we knew got sick. You have to make a choice. Do you choose to become closer to them and get more involved as their needs become greater, or do you say, “I can’t, because it’s too much and I wasn’t close enough to them”? That’s a decision fraught with self-doubt and “Am I being selfish?” “Am I being a coward?” “What will the person think?” At the same time to have 20 of those in your memory – “Did I make the right choice?” And I want us to forgive ourselves. I hope the film can help people with that. I think that by forgiving ourselves we can give ourselves permission to be caregivers now, in whatever context.