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by Peter Knegt
January 28, 2011 2:06 AM
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Sundance 2011 | I Wasn't There: Sundance Doc "We Were Here" and the Importance of HIV/AIDS in Film

For me, one of the standout films at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival was David Weissman's chronicle of the AIDS epidemic, "We Were Here." A very specific depiction of the onset of AIDS in America, the film focuses on the stories of five individuals who lived in San Francisco at the time - four gay men and a heterosexual woman who was a nurse in an AIDS ward. The doc provides a powerful snapshot of a time in American history that few are fully aware of. Though certainly not the definitive AIDS documentary, Weissman brings an affecting sense of intimacy by focusing on just five individuals and one city.

"I was trying to find a way to make a movie that was illuminating and healing for the audience, and also a process of healing for myself as well," Weissman said before yesterday's screening of the film. "I moved to San Francisco in 1976 and found myself in this community of gay hippy boys that are politically active and naked at the beach and taking acid. We were just enjoying this exuberant period in this emerging gay movement in this incredibly beautiful and amazing city... Then as the epidemic came in, life changed. It's taken a period of time for me personally and for the community to be willing to go back and revisit what we went through, both the horrors and the beauty of it."

While many people in the audience clearly were watching a film that they could relate to and heal from, what was shown on screen in "We Were Here" was a world I've never belonged to, and a world I've only read about or seen in movies. I wasn't revisiting anything. I looked around the theater after the screening finished, and saw a couple younger faces - all with the same tear tracks I had - and wondered how much of what they saw on screen was entirely new information. Then a young woman stood up during the Q&A and professed to Weissman how grateful she was for telling these stories.

"I want to say thank you," she tearfully proclaimed. "My uncle moved to Southern California in 1981, he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1983, and I was born in 1985. He passed away in 1995 and I have about three memories of him. When he was in California, he was estranged from my family, and none of us know about his life there. He didn't talk about it when he came home to die. So I just want to say thank you for me giving me a window into this life."

The people that Weissman depicts in "We Were Here" represent a generation that discovered AIDS in the most unimaginably horrible way possible: As it happened. The metaphor of a "war zone" is used by one of "Here"'s subjects, and I'd suggest that's actually an understatement. They watched as thousands of people - including their lovers, friends, and potentially even themselves - suddenly and gruesomely died of a mysterious illness that their government was completely ignoring largely out of homophobia. At least in a war zone, you know exactly who the enemy is, and that somewhere your government at least claims they have your back.

I represent a generation that largely found out about AIDS through the mainstream media. On the day I was born, the term "AIDS" had existed for exactly 17 months. I was five months old when HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, was discovered (though it was named HTLV-III at the time). I was three years old when AZT, the first antiretroviral drug, became available to treat HIV. By the time I was six, 80,000 Americans had died of AIDS - more than the Vietnam War. And I had no idea it even existed. But in the 1990s, just as I became old enough to start paying attention to it, the mainstream media started paying attention to AIDS.

As a child, I was obsessed with the Academy Awards. When the nominations came out I'd be determined to see as many of the major films as possible, which wasn't particularly easy. I lived in a small town with an old movie theater that had three small cinemas, and rarely were those cinemas not screening Hollywood blockbusters. But the Oscars usually boosted a couple less popcorny films into small town markets. As a result of this, my mother took me to see "Philadelphia" - a shoo-in to win best actor - a few weeks after my tenth birthday. She had seen the film first, and decided it was a reasonable thing to take me to, though I know she got a lot of gruff for it.

"You're taking a child to see that movie," I remembered a relative asking my mother with homophobic inclinations. I asked afterwards what my relative had meant by that and my mother said to me: "Because it's about someone who is gay, and someone who is really sick from a very scary disease. For some people, that makes them very uncomfortable."

After we walked out of the screening, I'd wondered if my relative might have been right. Tears still streaming down my face from that intensely melodramatic final scene in which Neil Young's "Philadelphia" plays over a montage of Tom Hanks's character as a child that his family watches after his funeral. I had a bunch of questions for my mother, but I didn't want to ask them. She would always ask me what letter grade a film deserved after we saw one (a tradition resulting from another childhood obsession, Entertainment Weekly), and when she did so after "Philadelphia," I simply responded: "R." She kept asking what about the film upset me so much, responsibly trying to use it as a tool to give me some sort of greater understanding of the world outside my own. But I lied and said it was because I didn't like seeing people get sick and die. I don't think she thought much beyond this answer, though she countered this by asking why I'd easily given "Schindler's List" an "A+" two weeks earlier.

The real reason, of course, was that watching "Philadelphia" was definitely one of the first times I'd ever considered I might be gay, and to plug into that place deep within the sub-consciousness through a film about AIDS - especially one of such problematic representation as "Philadelphia" - is a terrifying, terrifying experience. I doubt at that point I had any knowledge of how HIV/AIDS was actually transmitted, or how preventable it was. I just knew it killed gay people. After that, I resisted ever seeking out information about it. Like my homosexuality itself, I repressed the idea that AIDS even existed and avoided ever testing that (oddly enough, the next time that would indeed be tested was when I asked my mother why Jenny died in "Forrest Gump," one the following year's big Oscar movies).

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It wouldn't be until my late teens - and the beginning of my coming to terms with my queerness - that I'd also come to terms with my relationship with the idea of AIDS. After having a near nervous breakdown the first time I was ever tested (despite the doctor alerting me to the facts behind HIV transmission, and that I had done nothing to even remotely suggest I'd be positive), I decided living with this repressive fear was unhealthy and unnecessary. So on my own and through some classes in the remarkable sexual diversity studies program at the University of Toronto, I became obsessed with the history of AIDS through work from the perspectives of people who really, truly experienced it: Books, articles, art and, especially, film.

David Weissman's "We Were Here."

I found my way to Gregg Araki's "The Living End," Peter Friedman and Tom Joslin's "Silverlake Life: The View From Here," Derek Jarman's "Blue," Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's "Common Threads: Stories From The Quilt," and John Greyson's "Zero Patience." All made within a few years of "Philadelphia," I'd genuinely never heard of any of them until I was 17 or 18. And collectively they liberated me. Together they gave me an understanding of what really happened. And ever since, I'm proud to feel responsibly educated about HIV/AIDS - both historically and presently, and I'm proud not to be afraid of getting tested anymore.

This is why films like "We Were Here" continue to be very important tools for educating people that are unaware of the stories behind the history of HIV/AIDS. It's been ten years since my own "liberation," and there's now a whole new generation of younger queer men. A generation that has shown the highest new infection rates since the 1980s, and a generation that widely holds an extraordinarily erroneous belief that AIDS is more or less curable.

It's also true that they have more access to media of all kinds than any generation before them. Instead of being forced to have something like "Philadelphia" stand as their only cinematic representation of HIV/AIDS, queer teens can easily access the likes of "Blue" or "Common Threads: Stories From The Quilt" on their computer screens or through DVD players. However, there hasn't been a considerable update to that genre since the 1990s. "We Were Here" is a rare example from the past decade or so, independent or otherwise.

The domestic situation regarding AIDS is rarely depicted in the mainstream media. AIDS is often discussed as a disease of underdeveloped nations. It is true that the disease has a severe presence in those countries, and that in general HIV/AIDS is no longer exclusive to gay men. It is clearly also a disease of poverty, a disease of race, and a disease of the developing world. "We Were Here" is a movie everyone should see, as HIV/AIDS does truly affect everyone. The film shows how so many people (and not just queer men... lesbians in particular played a huge role) fought under remarkably challenging circumstances to educate people about HIV/AIDS and to make the government take action and start developing the drugs that would come to drastically reduce AIDS morality rates by the 1990s. There was a moment when many state governments tried to pass bills that would quarantine HIV-positive people or even brand them with tattoos. Without the people that fought against this and everything else, the disease could have evolved into a drastically more frightening situation.

But young queer men in particular need to see "We Were Here." They need to gain an understanding of the horrors of HIV/AIDS to educate themselves and avoid going through something a generation of queer men had no choice in experiencing. Men who have sex with men are still the largest demographic of newly infected people in the United States. While we represent 2 - 5% of the US population, we have an HIV diagnosis rate more than 44 times that of other men, and more than 40 times that of women. We account for more than half of all new HIV infections in the United States and nearly 30,000 of us are newly infected with HIV each year. We are the only risk group with increasing annual numbers of new HIV infections. From 2005 - 2008, estimated diagnoses of HIV increased approximately 17% among men who have sex with men.

The media needs to take this into consideration and give us more depictions of HIV/AIDS - historically or present-day - to increase awareness and understanding. Independent film in particular was one of the greatest assets I ever had in my own HIV/AIDS education, and in simply understanding where I came from. The subject might not fuel a bidding war from Fox Searchlight and Paramount, but it's imperative to take it on nonetheless.

"So many people in my generation who have lived through the epidemic have pushed it down because multiple loss is very hard to deal with," Daniel Goldstein, a subject in the film who has been living with HIV for over 25 years, said after the screening. "And I think this movie has allowed me to start letting some of that in and heal from it. It's very hard. But I'm really feeling it will be so healing for people of my generation, and hopefully it will be a revelation for young people and teach them about their history and why the world is the way it is."

Watch the full Q&A from the film here.

This is a first person article by indieWIRE's Associate Editor Peter Knegt. The format is a departure from iW's regular styles of film coverage. Knegt and Managing Editor Brian Brooks viewed the film at Sundance and deemed it more appropriate than a traditional review. Follow Peter on Twitter and on his blog.

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  • Chris Morley | February 8, 2012 8:49 AMReply

    I've just seen this film on the BBC 4 digital TV channel and as a 60+ year old British gay man who spent 25+ years working in the UK's HIV voluntary sector this opportunity to see David Weissman's film was a rare gift. Giving it this moving personal response review matched his film wonderfully.

    Although thousands of miles away in the UK, the beacon example of the SF LGB community's response to HIV inspired and galvanised me and others into developing our own community responses and for that I am immensely grateful. We avidly followed what was happening in SF (and in NY) through British community papers like Capital Gay (London) and Mancunian Gay (Manchester) and learnt from and adapted the information and lessons to suit our situation in the UK. The altruism of the SF HIV pathfinders set us an example that made a real difference in the UK where things could easily have become a lot worse.

    It's been a cathartic experience to review and remember many painful episodes and uncounted people in my own life through this exceptional film but also life enhancing to recall the compassionate humanity and goodness we witnessed.

  • Reed | February 23, 2011 9:00 AMReply

    @ Mark - about "queer." Go Google "Queer theory" and read some Wikipedia entries on the subject.
    My question: why do so many people concentrate only on the negative aspects of "queer" and ignore the many positive attritubutes: strange, rare, exceptional, outstanding, etc?

  • Mark | February 4, 2011 6:20 AMReply

    Good piece, but why does the author insist on using the word "queer" when so many people still find it objectionable?

  • Jesse Westbrook | January 30, 2011 2:49 AMReply

    Reading Peter Knegt's review makes it clear what is fatally missing in "iW's regular styles of film coverage": honest feelings and true love of cinema. Peter's passionate new "style" of human communication and connection in his "We Were Here" review, has frequently been drowned out by the now-boring sameness of "knowledge" pretentiousness, "look-at-me" fashionable language, and "in the know" elitism....While I believe a website that cares about independent film is vitally needed, it has been painful to push myself through much of the writing in iW, trying to get to the beautiful essence of directors' creativity. I often yearn, like a starving man in the cultural desert, for an ounce of Truth, rather than processed artificial junk food....Though Peter probably must get back on the treadmill of modern film criticism, I thank him for this rare insightful and moving review.

  • Nick Davis | January 28, 2011 6:41 AMReply

    Lovely, moving, fantastic article, and I agree that your mom sounds like the bee's knees.

  • Hillary | January 28, 2011 5:17 AMReply

    Great essay - can't wait to see the film. (BTW, the song in Philadelphia is by Bruce Springsteen.)

  • Dyke | January 28, 2011 5:15 AMReply

    Your mom's fucking rad.

  • dsinla | January 28, 2011 2:35 AMReply

    View the Award winning documentary "House of Numbers" to see why questions about this must be raised, and why deeper issues about HIV and AIDS need to be discussed. Lives are at risk. This is the first documentary,with the worlds
    foremost authorities, that highlights the fundamental problems with HIV
    testing, science, and statistics. It sheds new light on a misunderstood
    phenomenon for which there is still no cure. GO to - to see the trailer.

  • Mike | January 28, 2011 2:12 AMReply

    @ Hilary - both Springsteen's song is "Streets of Philadelphia", but the song Peter refers to is "Philadelphia" by Neil Young, which plays at the end of the film during a montage of the main character as a child

  • Matthew Gordon Long | January 28, 2011 1:27 AMReply

    Thanks for this article Peter. I always appreciate the way you balance objective commentary and personal disclosure on your blog and in your film writing.