You are hereLove in a Time of AIDS
Love in a Time of AIDS
"I did not choose it; it chose me,” states clear-eyed and forthright Eileen Glutzer into the camera in director David Weissman’s documentary “We Were Here.” The “it” she refers to is the AIDS epidemic that made its first faint appearance in San Francisco in the mid-1970s. It grew into a monstrous conflagration which would carry away over 15,000 people by 1997.
Ms. Glutzer, a feminist and nurse, bore witness to the worst that the AIDS “plague” wrought, as did Daniel Goldstein, Ed Wolf, Paul Boneberg, and Guy Clark, the film’s other survivors. They tell us what it was like to live and to love and to care for those who died. Each of them offers a reflection on a disease that was, by turns, mysterious, terrifying, and merciless.
By his own admission, “We Were Here” was not at first high on Mr. Weissman’s list of films to make. Now 56 years old, Weissman has produced a steady and compassionate film completely unmarred by histrionics. In place of melodrama there is a restrained sorrowing (only Daniel Goldstein and Guy Clark give way to tears) on the part of the five speakers who take viewers back to the halcyon, pre-AIDS era. We are brought from the care-free through to the horrific years ending in the manageable present day.
This is a film where only what is absolutely essential has been permitted to make it to the screen, to such degree where even background music is absent so that emotions are unprompted.
The smiling and shiningly healthy faces of handsome young men – bare-chested, clad in tight-fitting jeans, many openly kissing – looking out from forty-year-old black and white photos create a stunning psychic dissonance. Most, if not all, of those men are now dead and never knew that a scourge was about to crush them.
Their world was like a big sexual candy store, where, as Mr. Boneberg puts it, “If you took a bunch of men and said, ‘Have as much sex as you can, how much sex would they have? A lot of sex.” It was also possible, although less acknowledged, that someone like the soft-spoken Mr. Wolf, although gay, could feel inept for being “terrible at anonymous sex.”
This extremely close and amazingly free community was just starting to feel its political power after the Stonewall riots of 1969. Harvey Milk, a.k.a. the mayor of Castro Street, began to lead the community. A new freedom was emerging from an oppressed class. The film’s deft editing (accomplished by co-director Bill Weber) shows how the HIV-AIDS virus shoved its way into a burgeoning gay-rights activist atmosphere and in its destructive power lent a community new.
As life became subsumed by the life-destroying disease, the body count increased as did the panic and fear. Weissman did not flinch in selecting images of AIDS death-dealing. Young men with hollowed eyes, and emaciated bodies disfigured by Kaposi sarcoma lesions, were reminiscent of World War II concentration camp victims.
Alongside all of this are the random-noise-in-the-universe voices of Lyndon LaRouche and Jerry Fallwell. LaRouche proposed a ballot initiative to quarantine AIDS victims (defeated in a successful campaign by Mr. Boneberg, executive director of Mobilization Against AIDS); Falwell, a firebrand, identified AIDS as God’s wrathful punishment on gays. There were desperate, fear-driven grasping at medical straws. Painful and dangerous drug trials (poignantly recalled by Mr. Goldstein, glad that he decided to pass on them because he was a “wuss”) did more harm than good.
But as it states in the Bible’s famous 23rd Psalm, one goes through the valley of the shadow of death; one does not stay there.
Mr. Weissman and his five witnesses kept moving onward . As did countless others. Organizations such as the Coalition to Unleash Power helped to hasten the development of the AIDS cocktail that eventually reduced the death rate.
Ms. Glutzer, who cared for the sick and dying in San Francisco General Hospital, in one of the film’s most difficult and moving passages, tells of taking the eyes from newly-deceased patients for research on the causes of AIDS-related blindness.
Guy Clark, a florist, donated flowers to funerals of those unable to afford them. The lesbian and gay communities, which for so long had kept an unfriendly distance from each other, put aside their differences and mobilized to care for those who needed it. For a community whose love dared not speak its name, it began to receive love in spades from, in the words of Ed Wolf, “a whole group of other people who stepped up and became their family.”
At its height, the AIDS epidemic was (and still is) a war. As in any war, the more important stories come from those on the sidelines who somehow survived and bore the heavy burden of hauling the truth to others.
“We Were Here,” despite its standing as a chronicle of the epic numbers of those who perished from HIV-AIDS, is an intimate account of a huge tragedy. The personal stories of Eileen, Guy, Daniel, Ed, and Paul have more lasting power than what the virus wrought. “It became clear,” said Mr. Weber, “that even inside a sentence there’s a lot of ground covered.”
Despite the occasional images of the physical devastations of AIDS, “We Were Here” is a film to move towards rather than away from. Its consistently measured tone, lack of histrionics, and unerring humanity, distinguish it as one of the finest homages to the people who looked at so much death in the face and didn’t blink, even when their eyes were tear-filled. At a time when there is more talk than action about “community,” “We Were Here” shows what that word really looks like when it is threatened with near obliteration. It all begins with simply showing up.
>Pamela A. Lewis>
Produced and directed by David Weissman; edited and co-directed by Bill Weber; director of photography, Marsha Kahm; music by Holcombe Waller; released by Red Flag Releasing.
Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. The film is not rated.