Monday, September 12, 2011

New AIDS documentary, "We Were Here," glows with humility, wisdom and grace, NY Times says

NY Times review of "We Were Here:"

“There was nothing extraordinary about the fact that you lose the people you love because it’s going to happen to all of us,” observes Ed Wolf, a gentle, gay San Franciscan in his mid-50s who devoted years to counseling dying AIDS patients during the peak of the epidemic. “It’s just that it happened in this targeted community of people who were disenfranchised and separated from their families. And a whole group of other people stepped up and became their family.”

The family or community, whatever you want to call it, that coalesced around a public health emergency is the story of “We Were Here,” an extraordinarily moving, beautifully edited documentary directed by David Weissman (“The Cockettes”) and Bill Weber. Mr. Wolf’s remembrance of how the city’s gay and lesbian citizenry united and mobilized to care for its own establishes the film’s steady elegiac tone.

“We Were Here” is an unblinking chronology of the epidemic, recounted by five people who lived through it and watched countless friends and lovers die. The disease infected roughly half of the city’s gay male population, killing more than 19,000 by the end of 2009; some 15,000 more, sustained by a life-extending cocktail of drugs that became available in the mid-’90s, were living with H.I.V. The film’s before-and-after pictures of joyful, carefree young men reduced to haunted, hollow-eyed skeletons covered with the lesions of Kaposi’s sarcoma evoke World War II photos of concentration camp prisoners.

As grim as some of its images are, “We Were Here” is above all a film about love: not romantic love but the kind that really matters, in which people selflessly show up and keep on showing up for one another in the worst of times. The experiences of Mr. Wolf and of the film’s other eloquent witnesses — Paul Boneberg, Daniel Goldstein, Guy Clark and Eileen Glutzer — profoundly changed their lives. These are people who didn’t run away and hide; you want to hug them.

Mr. Wolf, who recalls being “terrible at anonymous sex,” notes how he belatedly found a way to bond with gay men as a volunteer caregiver for the Shanti Project. Mr. Clark, a former dancer turned florist and a 30-year resident of the Castro neighborhood in San Francisco, who donated funeral flowers to men whose resources were exhausted by their illness, talks of finding his spirit.

Mr. Boneberg, a hippie from Buffalo who briefly lived on a commune, served as executive director of Mobilization Against AIDS, one of the first such activist organizations, and became something of a political firebrand. He remembers the divisive issue of whether to close the bathhouses, which had been considered “core institutions” of the city’s gay culture, at the epidemic’s height. He was a leader of the successful campaign to defeat an AIDS quarantine ballot initiative proposed by Lyndon LaRouche.

The right-wing attacks never gained traction, Mr. Boneberg suggests, because the compassionate response of San Francisco’s gay and lesbian residents helped demolish the stereotype of homosexuals as selfish, amoral hedonists.

Mr. Goldstein, a New York-born sculptor who founded Visual Aid and Under One Roof, nonprofit organizations that generate money for education, medical and support services, is himself H.I.V.-positive. Amazed to have survived after losing two lovers to AIDS, he says he has just begun to accept that he has a future. Ms. Glutzer, a feminist and a nurse, cared for the dying at San Francisco General Hospital and helped supervise the clinical trials of several AIDS drugs.

The story begins in the late 1970s, when the Castro became a mecca for gay men drawn to the city’s free-spirited, post-hippie ethos in an era of sexual liberation.

“If you took a bunch of men and said, ‘Have as much sex as you can,’ how much sex would they have?” Mr. Boneberg asks. “A lot of sex.” Archival photos of handsome young men, their arms flung around one another like victorious soldiers on the front lines of a cultural revolution, are inescapably poignant.

“We Were Here” has a tragic arc. By 1978, when Harvey Milk, the San Francisco city supervisor and so-called mayor of Castro Street, was slain, H.I.V. was already spreading among the gay population, although its presence hadn’t yet been felt. Even then, one man estimates, one-tenth of the population was infected.

Mr. Wolf remembers looking in the windows of a drug store where Polaroid photos were posted with a scrawled message: “Watch out, guys. There’s something out there.”

“We Were Here” remembers the desperate, often futile search for drugs and the formation of the militant AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, whose actions helped speed the development of the AIDS cocktail that eventually cut the death rate.

Personal stories — of a lover who died on the way to the hospital; of a mother who lost three sons to AIDS; of a plane trip to Washington in which gravely ill patients roused themselves from their sick beds to make the journey to advocate for AIDS research; of patients who donated their eyes for research on infections that were causing blindness — are harrowing and inspiring.

Throughout “We Were Here” there is not a hint of mawkishness, self-pity or self-congratulation. The humility, wisdom and cumulative sorrow expressed lend the film a glow of spirituality and infuse it with grace.