In a recent editorial, Leonard Pitts argues that in order for America to be a great nation, and for Americans to be great, there must be a common cause around which we must unite ourselves. He cites the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and World War II. David Weissman's 2011 documentary about the early years of the AIDS crisis in San Francisco, We Were Here, powerfully and movingly makes the case that this sort of mission and purpose can be not only provoked by warfare, but also by attacks much more intimate--disease and loss.
The film takes the form of an oral history, interviewing four men--a political activist, a volunteer to the sick, an infected artist, a longtime merchant in the Castro--and one woman, a nurse, about their experiences during the late 70s to early 90s, when AIDS was termed "gay cancer" and no one knew what caused it, how you caught it, or how to treat it. What makes these five individuals remarkable is the way, like firefighters, they ran towards the catastrophe, not away from it. As they calmly and lovingly narrate the of losses each one of them witnessed and suffered, poignantly and staggeringly illustrated on the macro level by visuals of the scores of young mens' obituaries, and on the micro by chilling before and after photographs of healthy bodies reduced to skeletons, the strength and resilience of these remarkable people is shown, not told.
The response of the San Francisco community captured by the film belies the heteronormative and homophobic argument, current at the time and sadly still extant, that characterizes gay men as narcissistic hedonists. Many of the infected, marginalized by their own families and their country, found themselves desperately ill and largely alone. What We Were Here demonstrates, through its title and the stories of the representative figures interviewed, is that San Franciscans gay and straight, male and female, white and of color, became a supportive family to men who had none, even when all they could do was help the sick to die. They cared for each other and buried each other with tenderness, humor, and love.
We Were Here also offers an informative look at the development of groundbreaking therapies and the political activism that has nearly transformed HIV/AIDS into a chronic condition rather than a death sentence. But it also serves as a primer on how to mourn the unspeakable, and how to recover from the apocalypse. It's a moving and welcome reminder that sometimes, America is home to the staggeringly brave.