Inside Out 2011: ‘We Were Here’ – a snapshot of a time and place, and the people who were there

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We Were Here

Directed by David Weissman / Bill Weber (co-director)

2011, USA

I have a bad habit of going into movies knowing what they’re going to be about and still come out surprised by how they affected me. Let me give you an example. When I went to see Steve McQueen’s Hunger at the 2008 European Film Festival in Toronto, I knew exactly what to expect – a chronicle of Bobby Sands’s hunger strike right up to his death from starvation. Somehow I read the description and managed to be surprised at how much it affected me emotionally as I was watching it. Afterwards I thought to myself that I really should have known how it would make me feel given I knew the subject matter. Well, this has happened to me numerous times since, most recently at the InsideOut screening of David Weissman and Bill Weber’s documentary We Were Here. I knew what it was about – the outbreak of AIDS in San Francisco in the late 1970s and 1980s – and yet some part of my brain chose to make me go in unprepared. Unprepared, I mean, for the emotional impact of this film.

We Were Here focuses on a few people who were in San Francisco at the time and right in the heart of the AIDS crisis that affected the gay community of San Francisco. As one of them says, they are here to tell their stories but also the stories of those that aren’t here anymore. The colourful personal accounts weave together to make up the heart-wrenching history of what was initially called “Gay Cancer.” The great strength of this documentary is that it lets those involved speak for themselves and presents us with an oral history. The one time the film gives us some facts on AIDS superimposed over the actions on screen, it feels weird and out of place. After all, this is not a film about AIDS in general. It doesn’t try to summarize the entire history of this disease. Rather, it is a snapshot of a time and a place and the people that were there. Perhaps they were at the wrong place at the wrong time – or, as they would probably have it, at the right place at the right time, despite what happened to the community.

As the accounts go on, I can feel myself get more and more teary-eyed and eventually turn into a complete blubbering idiot. The embarrassment of my public emotion soon disappears as I listen and look around and realize that I’m not the only one. Grown men and women around me are weeping. But the filmmakers don’t end this on a sad note. Though all the stories are fraught with tragedy and enormous loss, every single one ends on a hopeful and positive note. The common sentiment seems to be that you have to stick it out, help each other out and remain hopeful through it all. Where’s a hankie when you need one?

Laura Holtebrinck

21st Annual Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film and Video Festival / May 19 – 29, 2011

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