For those who were “there” in San Francisco, the documentary “We were Here” is an emotional rollercoaster ride that impacts - and ultimately – sparks compassion.
The well-crafted taut account of the A.I.D.S. crisis at the height of the outbreak of the epidemic doesn’t pull any punches – and subsequently – ends up being an on-the-edge-of-your-seat drama that not only provokes thought but also stirs the emotions long after the dark chapter in American history closed.
The director - David Weissman - accomplished this remarkable feat by expertly weaving a handful of faded news clips and riveting gut-wrenching visual images to recall the disturbing real-life tale about an insidious disease that struck down vibrant young men in the prime of life while a silent unfeeling Government – and its keepers – hid in the corridors of power and plotted to “quarantine” the infected.
I vividly recall the day I first heard about the mysterious virus.
One morning I dashed downstairs into the kitchen for breakfast, when my room-mate called out to me from the dining room.
“Julian, come read this,” he cried out excitedly.
“There’s cancer breaking out in New York and San Francisco that is killing gay men!"
The article, about one paragraph in length, was sketchy about the details because the virus was in its infancy and was not even given a name (or cause) yet by the medical community-at-large.
About two weeks later, newspaper headlines in dailies around the country were screaming about the killer disease.
On the heels of those disturbing reports, hysterical Americans - particularly homophobic bible-thumpers – cried out for government action.
Right off-the-bat, accusing fingers were pointed at the "gay" community and a homoerotic lifestyle - that some alleged - recklessly spread the mysterious killer disease.
In the wake of the public outcry - gay bath-houses were targeted - and ceremoniously shut down.
During that disturbing "era" of ignorance, friends like actor - Tony Hamilton - were shunned and died a horrible death alone as a result.
I was touched personally, in fact, when dozens of friends and acquaintances over the years succumbed to A.I.D.S. with no cure in sight.
When one of my best Vancouver pals - who hailed from Nelson B.C. - was stricken, I was beside myself.
Because Barrie was a responsible individual who preferred a monogamous relationship with a loving partner to a promiscuous lifestyle, it was evident that A.I.D.S. did not discriminate.
For this reason, I often reported on fundraising efforts in the community (the annual Los Angeles A.I.D.S. walk, for instance) to raise awareness, and likewise, put a spotlight on the bold-faced efforts of a concerned few to rustle up funds for vital research and fathom up treatments to quell the opportunistic infections ravaging its victims.
Even in medical facilities, unfounded fears – and hysteria – reached a fever pitch.
For example, Doctors and nurses worried about their own well-being in the wake of the outbreak, and so, were reluctant to hug their patients or get too close to their charges who ached for a loving hand to reach out and console their weary hearts as death’s door creaked open to swallow up their ravaged bodies.
In response, the Government – not only ignored the crisis – but also turned its back on demands for much-needed funding to combat the spread of the disease.
In one instant case, Government officials did spring into action, however.
The U.S. Department of Naturalization and Immigration instituted laws to deny entry to travelers journeying to these shores (or electing to immigrate) who tested positive for the dreaded disease.
Fortunately, a few high-profile individuals in the show-biz arena - Elizabeth Taylor, or example - took up the good fight to try to convince the fearful that A.I.D.S. was not just a "gay" disease.
Fortunately, great minds in the field of research – and compassionate fundraisers, too – were prompted to take legitimate meaningful action.
Because of their relentless tireless efforts to raise funds for research – and, likewise - prescribe experimental drugs to stem the tide - the once-rampant outbreak of HIV and A.I.D.S. was finally curbed ( and held at bay).
In the documentary, the director succeeds in shedding a light on these troubling events, by virtue of a handful of interviews he conducted with residents of the Castro District who were actively involved in the struggle to come to grips with – and ultimately - overcome the crisis in the eleventh hour.
Their heartbreaking stories – recalled in vivid heart-wrenching detail – are a testament to the greatness of the human spirit.
“We were Here” is a must-see documentary for that reason alone.
A.I.D.S. Memorial Quilt!
Ground zero during A.I.D.S. crisis!