In the early 1970s, in the shadow of the Stonewall riots and the free-love movement, gay men and lesbians flocked to San Francisco to find acceptance. They formed a thriving, tight-knit community until the arrival of AIDS in the early 1980s drove them under siege.
Director David Weissman (“The Cockettes” screened at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival) chronicles this transformative era through the stories of five individuals who lived through the best and the worst of it. In the face of unheralded tragedy, these men and women relate how they were affected and the way their community united to help those suffering and prevent further deaths.
Elegiac but inspirational, “We Were Here” bears witness to the experiences of those who died—and, equally importantly, those who lived—in the earliest years of the AIDS epidemic. Its story is universal, showing the capacity for compassion and strength in all of us, even against unimaginable adversity. [Synopsis courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival]
“We Were Here”
U.S. Documentary Competition
Producer: David Weissman
Cinematographer: Marsha Kahm
Editor: Bill Weber
Codirector: Bill Weber
Music: Holcombe Waller
Sound recordist: Lauretta Molitor
Responses courtesy of “We Were Here” director David Weissman.
Stumbling into filmmaking…
I’ve never been very good at future planning – even at 56 I’m still sort of wondering what I’ll be when I grow up. I was a politically active restaurant worker in San Francisco in my mid-20s and thought it would be fun to take film classes at City College. Filmmaking had never occurred to me prior to that, but once I got going it was the first thing I’d done that felt so right to me on so many levels. I persisted in a haphazard sort of way and somehow wound up where I am now.
A suggestion leads to a film…
“We Were Here” emerged out of a conversation with a younger boyfriend, also a filmmaker, who’d heard many stories from me about my experiences in San Francisco during the AIDS epidemic. He suggested that I make a film about it, which initially seemed like the last thing I’d want to do, but very quickly it became clear that this was exactly what I should be doing. It came together fairly quickly – Bill Weber, my filmmaking partner from “The Cockettes,” came on board and I started to shoot interviews.
An intimate approach to tell an epic story…
I think I had a pretty strong intuitive sense of how I wanted to do this – to tell an epic history through a very small number of very deep, very thoughtful interviews. I made a very early decision that I would only interview people who lived in San Francisco prior to the epidemic, and to let their journeys through those years evoke a much broader historical perspective.
Challenge in tackling a subject so close to home…
It has been, and remains, an emotionally challenging project. Not only has it required re-visiting of all of my own pain from those years, and that of my interviewees, but every conversation I have about the film brings up the emotions of whom I’m conversing with. Creatively, the questions of “can I really pull this off” and “will people who lived through that period be content with my approach” were constantly weighing on me, and of course, fundraising is always a pain in the ass.
Sundance as a testing ground…
I’m excited to see how the film plays out in the world, in a non-queer, non San Francisco setting. It was my hope and intention that the film use this story, this location to raise universal themes that transcend the specifics, Sundance will be the first real opportunity to see to what degree “We Were Here” succeeds in that regard.
“Word is Out” meets “Shoah”…
I sometimes described my approach as “Word is Out” meets “Shoah”. “Word is Out” was the first real documentary about gays and lesbians, and remains riveting in its depth and simplicity 30 years after it came out. And “Shoah” remains a singular masterpiece in the dignified, restrained way it evokes the enormity of the holocaust through intimate personal memories. I really wanted to make a film that trusted the pure power of storytelling, that affirmed that there is nothing better than a good “talking head” if you have the right talking heads, and if you allow for depth and complexity.
What comes next is probably something I can’t even imagine now. For better or for worse, that’s the way my life has always worked.