The eyewitness accounts are eye-wateringly detailed, intensely personal and completely compelling. It's brilliant, and you should try and see it (if you can find it)!
PCMR Rating: 9/10
I first became aware of this documentary in a Mark Kermode Guardian article, entitled 'Hidden Gems of 2011'. (Which prompted two instant DVD purchases, and a third is on the way!)
As a piece of entertainment, 'We Were Here' hits its marks, in that it will bring a tear to the eye of the of the hardest heart, and a lump to the throat of the surliest soul. More than this, however, this film is also relevant in a number of other, possibly more important ways. It is in equal parts historical document, cultural relic, and cautionary tale. You might be a child of the 80's, but I'll wager good money you've not seen this story told from a similar perspective.
The film tells the story of the AIDS pandemic in 1980's San Francisco, told from the perspective of five people who were at the epicentre. Guy was - and still is - is a flower salesman in the Castro for the last 28 years. Eileen was a nurse in 'the 5A', a ward in San Francisco General Hospital where AIDS patients were treated. Paul is a political figure, trying to lobby for research and aid, while fighting propositions to quarantine and isolate sufferers. Ed is a gay man whose friends were dying, so he volunteered to help isolated sufferers, and ended up working in the 5A. And finally Daniel is a HIV/AIDS sufferer - still living with the disease - who lost many friends and, tragically, two long-term partners to the disease.
The stories begin with the rise of the gay community in bohemian, post-hippy San Francisco at the end of the 70's, with each person giving a separate account of how they ended up there, and what it meant to them to be part of it. The participants' words are interlaced with incredibly rich archive footage from the time, starting in the late 70's and working through the 80's.
The rise of the virus itself is particularly chilling, and the suddenness with which it spread is compared repeatedly and aptly, to a warzone situation. In 1982, people realised that something was out there, but by then it was already too late. Awareness of how it was transmitted, how to prevent it, and most importantly how to treat it did not develop until thousands had already died: more than 15,000 would eventually die. The symptoms of the disease were particularly horrific and sudden, with sores and lesions, and rapid wastage among the more viscerally visual signs of the virus's hold.
However, underpinning the historical relevance of this story is the personal accounts of the contributors. As their individual stories unfold and develop, gradually the different ways each of these people experienced the outbreak hits home. The choice of contributors is inspired, as they are all eloquent and likeable and, as their stories can coalesce and commingle, their different perspectives consistently inform the same coherent narrative.
Each story is so rich, I can't possibly do them justice in this format, but take one example. Eileen Glutzer was a nurse in ward 5A of San Francisco General Hospital, where hundreds of Aids sufferers were essentially given treatment which amounted to palliative care, and a place to die in peace. At a point in the pandemic where field research was desperately being conducted in the search for a cure, her role involved asking sufferers if they would donate their eyes after they died. As she puts it herself, not an easy question. Also, she would get to know these people, as they could remain on the wards for weeks or months before the virus took their lives. Really, I cannot imagine how difficult that job must have been. But as she says herself when describing a conversation with her mom, "I didn't choose this, it chose me."
Apart from the powerful stories of the personal tragedy associated with AIDS, the movie really focusses on the sense of community that began to develop at this time of great tragedy. Volunteers began offering their time to help isolated sufferers of the virus. Lesbians, traditionally no great friends of gay men, rallied in their support through blood donation drives and political lobbying. Artists collaborated and opened a store where people could buy products such as t-shirts to support local sufferers. (Interestingly, the original name suggested for this shop was 'Aidsmart'!)
The contributors' words are all their own, and their stories are uniquely powerful. The archive footage and photos that are cut with the stories are fascinating, and really get across the palpable sense of dreadful fear and terrible personal loss that were so pervasive at the time. And yet, the rallying of the community leaves the viewer with a sense of the possibility of people to survive, and rise above any tragic event.
You won't see a better documentary this year. Go buy it if you can.