Simply and devastatingly letting five residents of San Francisco share their reminiscences of that city’s nightmarish “war zone” in the early, horrific years of AIDS, We Were Here creates a harrowing, streamlined oral history. Supplemented with still photos and mostly silent archival film of the quasi-utopian Castro district, and then the hospital wards its liberated gay denizens populated either as victims of the epidemic, caregivers, or friends benumbed by “an avalanche” of loss, the spine of the story is etched on the faces—and in the astonished voices—of the documentary’s quintet of witnesses. One recalls his contemporary disbelief “that this was really happening,” but in recounting how the disease decimated the ranks of their community, the interviewees still find the scale of the plague, which killed nearly 16,000 San Franciscans by 1997, hard to comprehend. (An exception is Paul Boneberg, the professional activist among them, who comes across not as stoic, but as the kind of clear-eyed fighter who never loses focus.)
Having documented the shaggy doings of a 1970s SF drag troupe in The Cockettes, co-directors David Weissman and Bill Weber (no relation to yours truly) here handle in the succeeding era, from the rise and martyrdom of Harvey Milk through AIDS-related civil-rights battles, less revelatory material; chronicles of the disease and the political oppression and rebellion it inflamed are more commonplace than annals of a largely forgotten queer hippie subculture. But the pain of the “gay cancer” epoch is revived with fresh horror by the testimony of artist Daniel Goldstein, who lost two lovers (one during a terror-stricken, high-speed drive to a hospital) and contemplated suicide when his resilience seemed exhausted, and Ed Wolf, a Midwestern square-peg emigrant to the Castro-clone bacchanal (“I was terrible at anonymous sex,” he says of his desire for intimate conversation in place of macho posturing) who found, in his work with the AIDS patient-support agency the Shanti Project, a natural outlet for his nurturing instincts until he too was burnt out with grief. Wolf also shares perhaps the doc’s most ominous anecdote: Going to a Castro pharmacy in 1981 to buy rolling papers, he joined a crowd staring at photos of a Kaposi sarcoma sufferer’s mouth lesions, an inaugural warning of the imminent disaster.
Cast more as observers, though still carrying scars from the era, are the nurse Eileen Glutzer, who found familial love at the bedsides of the dying men she attended to, and Guy Clark, who saw the first bloom of a manageable-AIDS era when a man who routinely passed his florist shop grew healthier with time, from wheelchair to cane to resuming his bike riding. There are some welcome, if muted, notes of sass and wit (of a proposed name for a benefit shop, Goldstein recalls protesting “No one is going to shop at a store called ‘AIDS Mart’”), but We Were Here keeps faith with the memory of San Francisco’s dead, and the dignity of the survivors, in its somber, unflinching poignancy. Getting nearly the last word with a self-effacing dismissal of heroism in enduring the period’s turmoil, Goldstein declares, “It’s not heroic. You just do it.”