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June 22, 2010

Frameline 34: "We Were Here: Voices from the AIDS Years in San Francisco"
By Trevor

"WE WERE HERE: VOICES FROM THE AIDS YEARS IN SAN FRANCSICO"
Director: David Weissman and Bill Weber
Trevor's Rating: 5 / 5 Stars

we_were_here.jpg

I can recall sobbing uncontrollably exactly three times in my adult life. Last night was one of those times. I ventured out to the Castro theatre for the "sneak peek" screening of "We Were Here: Voices from the AIDS Years in San Francisco." I knew I was in for a tear-fest, but I had no idea just how incredibly moving and utterly devastating the film would be. Before the screening, both the filmmakers admitted not wanting to make this film -- how can you possible represent the horror of those years without doing some injustice, without leaving some story untold? The idea is daunting.

No documentary to my knowledge exists that chronicles these years so intently, most likely because these stories are so incredible painful to tell -- and just as painful to listen to and absorb. I can only imagine that this film's road to the screen is paved in rivers of tears. As someone who did not experience those years, these representations are my only access to the memory of an era that shaped my gay world. It's why I have the kind of sex I do. It's why I have so few gay mentors from that generation. It's why bathhouses closed and disco died. And it's probably why gay marriage is the 21st century gay raison d'être.

As such, I listen to these stories intently whenever I can, mostly in the form of movies -- Longtime Companion, It's My Party, Angels in America, Sadness, and the like. With the exception of William Yang's incredible Sadness, these representations are rarely retrospective. They are told from the battleground itself rather than the hill overlooking the cemetery years later. This kind of war analogy is invoked several times in the film: as one interviewee explains, AIDS was what World War II was to many Americans. But of course as a comparison it is somewhat limited in its utility. War involves a coordinated opponent that you can see or at least pinpoint on a map. AIDS turned gay men's own bodies against them, crippling the young and muscular as quickly as it did the old and infirm. And during the first years of the epidemic, they had absolutely no idea how it was transmitted or who might already be infected.

Five individuals -- four gay men and one woman -- narrate the film, each with a unique experience that adds a new facet to the incredibly rich and devastatingly moving story. A flower vendor remembers giving away flowers to neighbors who wanted to bury their friends with dignity but had no money to give. An artist chokes back tears as he relives his lover dying as he frantically drove him to the hospital -- and in a heartbreaking turn, losing a second lover to the disease a few years later. A volunteer at the AIDS ward in San Francisco's General Hospital remembers finding a way to be a part of a gay community in comforting those who were dying. Their stories are heart wrenching.

The film was screened to a sold out crowd at the Castro Theater. Many in the room had lived through those awful years -- some in San Francisco, others elsewhere. Sitting in that room full of so many sobbing, hurt, and mournful gay men was one of the most challenging experiences of my life. At one point early in the film, a series of self-portraits by the photographer John Davis flashed across the screen. The series, titled "FIERCE," shows the artist emaciated, his body decimated by his illness. His naked, pale figure is contorted, stretched into alarming positions. An IV line is implanted in his chest. The crowd was silent except for the wailing howl of one man towards the back who could no longer hold back his tears. Even now as I write this, I cannot help but bury my face in my hands and cry. I will never forget the sound of that man's anguish. It will haunt me for the rest of my life. (And I'm not the only one to have this experience at the premier, it seems.)

Davis' self-portraits are both grotesque and stunningly beautiful at the same time. After the film, the director noted that these photos documented the duality of the epidemic so beautifully that they helped him to conceive of the film. On the one hand, you have thousands of men dying -- leaving behind friends, lovers, tricks, clients, parents, children, and admirers. On the other, you have an outpouring of support from both gay men and those outside the community, helping to take care of those who were dying and to fight for the support HIV-positive people needed to survive. AIDS could have destroyed gay community. But it didn't. Gay men's resilience in the face of death itself is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

The moment the film ended and the credits began to roll, the floodgate of my emotions let loose. I bent over in my chair, put my head in my hands, and gasped for air in between sobs. The crowd rose to its feet for a standing ovation, but I could not get out of my chair. I stayed in my seat, bawling. Crying for all those men I never knew, who I wish desperately were here today. For all their sass, for all their sex, and for all their creativity that was snuffed out far before it's time. But they're not here. And that is one of the hardest parts about being a post-AIDS gay man for me. Missing what I did not know. Longing for what I cannot have.

Keep up with the movie's progress on its website or its Facebook group.

PERMALINK | Posted at 3:44 AM | Post a Comment (2)

2 Comments

Trevor----Thank you. You know I read your blog religiously and I love it in many different ways and for many different reasons...but this is, arguably, one of your most remarkably written entries to date. Thank you for this amazing review and commentary...I got chills even just reading it---I can only imagine the experience of the film itself...and I hope I'll get the chance. I've already sent a note to the director of programming at our local queer film fest to try to see if we can't make sure it gets screened here at our fest in October, as well.

Author Profile Page Erik L. User Profile | June 22, 2010 8:50 PM


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