The documentary is a powerful and moving account of the AIDS epidemic. Director David Weissman works with co-director Bill Weber to great impact, using survivors accounts to recall the struggles faced by a lost generation.
The impact the AIDS epidemic had in San Francisco is staggering. The documentary shows the faces of the men who had died, who were featured in a local newspaper, the grainy black and white photos spanning multiple pages. The film also touches on the AIDS Memorial Quilt which was first conceived in 1985 by Cleve Jones, a gay rights activist based in San Francisco. The Quilt contains panels with names of those who had died from AIDS, and was displayed for the first time in Washington, D.C. We Were Here shows the unveiling of the Quilt, which covered a space larger than a football field and included 1,920 panels.
Interviews are punctuated with photographs of smiling loved ones, lost to the disease and forever caught in time. There is footage from the hospitals and rallies, recalling a time of desperate uncertainty and almost incomprehensible death, with inadequate responses from the government and a significant rise in homophobia. However, despite its harrowing content and subject matter, We Were Here is also a story of human courage and support. It focuses on those who lived and worked with the dying, and highlights a tremendous sense of community support. For a film with death and contagion as its core subject matter, the results are surprisingly uplifting.
The documentary does not attempt to bring the issue of AIDS back to the present, to explore the stigma which still attaches to the illness or discuss the experiences of those presently living with HIV in America. It doesn't touch upon the rapid spread of AIDS in other continents. We Were Here is, in a sense, introspective, and taking a broader focus would have diluted the powerful accounts of people living through the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco at the time.
In short, We Were Here is an incredibly moving account of the impact of the AIDS epidemic on San Francisco's queer community. The film is heart-wrenching, but it also evokes a deep sense of community resilience, survival and pride.