The Unknown War, by David Bax
The 1980’s AIDS epidemic, much like the Holocaust, provides seemingly endless opportunities for dramatic exploration. So many people were affected by it and each has her or his own story. Despite that wealth of inspiration for enlightening and educational works, it still seems as though – at least for people my age and younger, who mostly learned about it after the fact – the devastation and impact of AIDS remains understated.
We Were Here, a startling and moving new documentary, tells the story of the gay community in San Francisco and how they were both damaged and strengthened by the first decade or so of AIDS. A title card late in the film tells us that, in that city alone, more than 15,000 people had died of AIDS by the mid-1990’s. The body count of this disease is many, many times higher than that of Hurricane Katrina or the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the enormity of that number is not lost in the documentary.
The people in this community who are still around didn’t make it through without losing half their friends. They are not just survivors because they lived. They earn that designation because they truly survived something. One interviewee talks about his father and how he was changed when he came home from Vietnam. The man says of his years volunteering in the hospital’s AIDS ward, “I didn’t want my war to do to me what his war did to him.”
Whether or not “war” is the semantically correct choice to describe the events, it does at least connotatively apply. Not only because many people died but also because the community was forced to mobilize, to go into action. The film is, admirably, not an angry or heavily political one but it does take the time to mention how little response or attention AIDS was getting outside of the gay world. The attention it did get was often very negative and homophobic. As a result, bonds were formed and fortified. That’s really the most remarkable thing about the movie. Even as it is straightforward about the ravages of the disease on individuals and the group as a whole, its approach is positive. It’s a story about people coming together.
Because AIDS hit in the video age, there is no shortage of footage from which the directors, David Weissman and Bill Weber, are able to draw. They use these video and film clips to establish the world of San Francisco from the 1970’s to the 1990’s as a place where gay men came to be themselves. There’s a celebratory and meaningful sheen on the film’s depiction of the city without ever becoming naïve or sappy. There are also countless still photographs and clippings from newspapers and magazines used to set the scene.
However, the strongest element is not any of these things. The movie is structured around the recollections and testimony of five people who were there. Throughout, these people tell stories that are harrowing and heartbreaking, crushing and hilarious. Their resilience is evident but they are far from nonchalant about the horrors they’ve witnessed and even experienced.
Of course, the saddest thing about We Were Here, the thing that makes it one of the best films of the year, is that it never lets us forget that all these tales we’re hearing and all the tales they don’t tell us really only make up half the story. There are countless other victories and defeats and loves and losses; funny and sad stories that we’ll never get to hear because the people who could tell them are dead.