Ed Wolf remembers stopping by a drugstore on the way to a double bill of “Now, Voyager” and “Casablanca” on Castro Street in 1981.
In the store window were Polaroid pictures of a man with hideous purple splotches on his body. Scrawled underneath was a note: “Watch out guys, there’s something out there.”
That “something” was AIDS, the so-called “gay plague” which invaded San Francisco like a lethal marauder in the early 1980s and would eventually kill more than 15,000 in that city alone.
Filmmakers David Weissman and Bill Weber (who documented the delirious counterculture of the ’60s in “The Cockettes”) take on the extraordinary decade that both devastated and mobilized the American gay community in response to this terrible scourge.
“We Were Here” concentrates on five people who were in San Francisco before it started: florist Guy Clark, activist Paul Boneberg, nurse Eileen Glutzer, artist Daniel Goldstein and Wolf, who would become an AIDS counselor.
The pre-AIDS days of the ’70s are recalled fondly, when the Castro was the center of a party atmosphere. Boneberg notes, “If you take a lot of young men and say ‘Have as much sex as you want,’ how much sex would they have? A lot.”
The film estimates that the HIV virus had likely arrived in San Francisco in 1976, and by 1981, 20% of the gay male population had been infected. That number was up to nearly 50% by the time a test for the virus had been developed.
Parts of this film are difficult to watch – the before-and-after photos, the physical deterioration caused by the disease that transforms a strong, healthy body into a skeletal frame, the numerous funerals, the anguish of those left behind. Goldstein lost two partners and all his friends; all have lost someone.
Fortunately, the tragedy inspired another whole community of caregivers and activists who took care of the dying and began to agitate for a national response. President Ronald Reagan refused to address the issue until 1987, after 21,000 Americans (including Hollywood legend Rock Hudson) had died.
Though the topic is sad, “We Were Here” is a tribute to the heroism of those who stepped up to help, and to the resilience of the gay community itself. Glutzer says it this way: “I didn’t choose it, it chose me. I couldn’t turn my back on it.”
Goldstein reports that his father asked why he suspended a promising art career to devote his time to the dying: “They’re not your family.”
“But you’re wrong, Dad,” Goldstein responded. “They are my family.”
Opens Friday, Oct. 21, at Reading Gaslamp 15, 701 5th Ave., in Downtown San Diego.
To read more about the movie, click HERE.