We Were Here is a powerful new film about the effect of AIDS on the gay men of San Francisco in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Last week I was fortunate enough to attend a gala screening of the film in London, jointly hosted by Attitude magazine and the Terence Higgins Trust.
The documentary is a combination of archive footage and new testimonials from a few figures who were fully involved in the Castro Street scene – who had just begun to bask in their own liberation when the terrifying disease, yet to be recognised as AIDS, infiltrated their community and struck down more than 50% of the gay population. The director
interviews a few people whose circumstances meant that greatness was truly thrust upon them. There was the newly trained nurse who became a researcher, a samaritan, and a shoulder for many a bereaved family member to cry on; the young volunteer who felt at odds with his community at first but eventually became a major political activist; and the artist who lost two partners, countless friends, and still battles with HIV today himself. All in all, the demonstration of camaraderie this film depicts is unique, admirable, and a moving snapshot of a period in time that we will hopefully never experience again.
During the Q&A conducted by director David Weissman after the film, many audience members were keen to relate what they saw on screen to what they themselves had experienced in London, and for some of the younger viewers like myself, it helped to bring the topic a little closer to home. People voiced the usual concerns over younger generations acting more careless with casual sex – perhaps because of advances in HIV treatment. However much truth there is in that, it is important that people who did not live through the days when AIDS really was a death sentence get to educate themselves through this film. It is doubly staggering to see both what this disease is capable of, and what epic feats people performed in tackling it.
The San Francisco AIDS outbreak is often glossed over as a mere moment where the epidemic began, ‘and the rest is history’. In fact, this period which the film covers is a history all in itself, and one which should be acknowledged and understood not only by the gay community, but by people from every background, because AIDS does not discriminate – it threatens all. The film is informative, moving, devastating and very much life-affirming. I implore you to see it.
We Were Here opens at selected UK cinemas on 25 November.