Wednesday, January 15, 2014

We Were Here (2011): AIDS epidemic, in the personal

We Were Here (2011)
dir: David Weissman

In 1987, Randy Shilts published the landmark book And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. Shilts' book documented the first five years of the AIDS epidemic in excruciating detail, taking care to make it as personal as it was political, and as intimate as it was broad. And, while Shilts' book has some problems with it, it is as angry, moving, emotional and personal as an AIDS document needs to be.

Since the release of And the Band Played On, there have been AIDS documentaries, and almost every gay documentary about the 80s have dealt with AIDS due to its significance. We Were Here retells the story of And the Band Played On, but on an even more personal level with more of a focus on San Francisco and the Castro district. David Weissman conducts a series of interviews with five survivors, rewinds a little bit, then fires the emotional cannon through the 90s.

Weissman's interviews are well chosen. A nurse who was conducting some of the first clinical trials, an artist who had been leading through community efforts and was one of the first to find out he was poz, a florist, a high profile political activist, and a guy who became an emotional support volunteer. They present the various efforts that came together at the time. Volunteers, community activists, national activists, medical, and the support. The only person missing is the lesbian activist, since they have been the undertold story of support and deserve to have their story interweaved with the gay male story. Alas, they just get lip service in the course of the interviews.

Weissman edits together the interviews in a streaming tale, and includes footage and photos from the 80s and 90s. This ranges from news reports about Kaposi's Sarcoma to showing the pages of the issue of Bay Area Reporter where they dedicated a whole section to just images of the people that were lost to AIDS that year to home videos to the AIDS quilt and candle light vigils.

What makes We Were Here successful is that it consciously walks the same line as Shilts' novel, balancing between the political, the occupational, and the personal. At one point, the interviewees could be talking about the community efforts in San Francisco, and the next struggling to hold it together when they remember the month where one guy lost a good friend, his partner, and then his best friend. The footage used reminds us that this happened to people outside these interviews, and the scale at which it happened.

AIDS hasn't gone away. But, in the media, AIDS has been reduced to "gay diabetes" as one wag reductively put it. Wake up, take a pill cocktail and you're fine. And, the rates of infection are climbing again. The CDC reported that from 2008 to 2010, rates of new infection among homosexual men increased by 12%, from 26,700 to 29,800. New infections. Per year. And, that the majority are among the youth who have seen the effectiveness of the chemical cocktail and have taken less precautions than the older generation who survived with it.

In the past year or so, PrEP has taken hold of the community. So, the uninfected community takes a new drug to prevent infection, akin to women taking birth control. This is a new development, which came around after We Were Here was released. The effectiveness or moral or pharmaceutical implications of this development are not going to be argued here. This is a film review, ostensibly. But, it is a part of the story that is still marching forward.

And, I guess this hits a little close to home this money. Last month, I spent some time in Palm Springs, where I spoke with a guy who had lived through the crisis, and seemed to be haunted by it, and maybe even a little self-destructive still. He's not the only one who has seemed haunted by the AIDS epidemic. In this haunted way, we need to retell the youth about the stories. The initiatives. The action. But, more importantly, the heartache and the loss. While this is just a chapter of the gay community, it continues to reverb 30+ years after it started.

While We Were Here in no way supplants And the Band Played On, it feels like both a Cliffsnotes edition, and a sociological addendum to the book. It feels like the footnotes that should not be dismissed or forgotten. And, since most youth will not read a 650+ page dense as hell book that is almost exclusively loss and rage about disease, We Were Here elevates to new required viewing, even if it doesn't pack the wallop as some of the emotions have been dulled by time.

Required Viewing.

No comments:

Post a Comment