Out Of The Past: We Were Here Travels To The Dawn Of The AIDS Crisis In SF


In urging friends to go see We Were Here, a new documentary about the dawn of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, I’ve been met with a lot of “I already know about that” and “Um, that sounds depressing.” But director David Weissman (The Cockettes), never intended to make downer.

“I wanted to make an inspiring movie,” Weissman tells Queerty. “It’s really an advocacy film for compassion and community engagement.”

The film’s timing is serendipitous: October is Gay History Month and 2011 marks 30 years since the mysterious “gay cancer” was first reported. We Were Here captures late-’70s/early-’80s San Francisco: a community thrown into the middle of an epidemic. It follows five subjects—a florist, a nurse, an artist, an activist and a volunteer counselor—who share their stories of being in the throes of a catastrophe that the film aptly refers to as a “war zone.”

“I was really interested in capturing the human experience of [HIV/AIDS],” Weissman says. “And in a way I’m really using other people to tell my own story.”

Gathering archival footage and shooting interviews brought him back to moments of extreme contrast—where everyday life was filtered through the specter of AIDS.

“One of the recollections that came up that I’d completely forgotten about, was you would go to the symphony or the Castro Theater or the opera and all during the performances you would hear around the room ‘beep beep, beep beep.’ People would have pill timers, because people were taking 20-30 pills a day that had to be taken at regular intervals,” Weissman, at left, recalls. “It just became so much a part of the audio track of regular life: 30, 40, 50 people in a room with their pill timers going off. I had completely forgotten that but you would just hear it all the time. It was a terrible thing and yet, you know, we hung out, we had sex, we danced. Life went on. It was an incredible juxtaposition of normal life and the most insane thing you could imagine, just completely coexisting. That’s the thing that I find most perplexing looking back, is how normal it was in so many ways.”

This summer the film made its way through the film-festival circuit and is now rolling out in theaters nationwide. Weissman hopes that, in addition to documenting a critical time in our community’s history, We Were Here will spark discussion among gay men too young to remember when the AIDS crisis was at its peak.

“Probably more than anything, I made [the film] for gay men: the young gay men who don’t know the story and for older gay men who have not had the chance to tell it. I think that’s emotionally the most important piece to me—to sort of open up an intergenerational understanding of both personal queer history as well as political history.”


We Were Here is now playing in select theaters nationwide. Visit WeWereHereFilm.com for current and upcoming release dates and locations.


Images via We Were Here, Cleveland International Film Festival