'We Were Here' documents AIDS crisis in the 1980s
Former political activist Paul Boneberg recalled the extraordinary audience reaction to “We Were Here,” when it was shown in the spring at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre. David Weissman’s acclaimed documentary chroniced how the AIDS epidemic decimated the male gay population in the 1980s and early '90s.
“The Castro holds over 1,500 people,” said Boneberg, who appears in the film, which opened in Los Angeles last Friday. “It’s an old big movie palace. People began very early on to cry. Part of it was that much of the room were people who had lived through it, so they were seeing images of the horror they themselves lived through. It came right back.”
Artist Daniel Goldstein, who is also featured in the documentary, recalled how the audiences grew during its one-week engagement. “The theater was pretty full the first couple of nights,” said Goldstein, who has been HIV-positive since 1984 and lost two partners to the epidemic.
“But the last three nights they had to open the balcony of the Castro, which they never do. It was a lot of young people Facebooking each other saying you have got to see this — this is our history.”
Weissman, who had directed the 2002 documentary “The Cockettes,” about the San Francisco counterculture of the 1960s, with his editor Bill Weber, didn’t make “We Were Here” because of the 30th anniversary of the pandemic.
“I had a boyfriend for about a year and half who was much younger than me,” said Weissman. “He had heard me talk so many times about my experiences during those years. I was hearing from younger men — we don’t know anything about the history. I made the film to try and instigate and encourage an intergenerational dialogue about the history and provide a beginning for a kind of healing for a generation that really lived through the worst of it.”
Besides Boneberg and Goldstein, the documentary also features interviews with a nurse/AIDS researcher, an AIDS counselor and a flower shop vendor who all survived those early years of the epidemic that saw 15,548 gay men die in the city before drugs began to slow and control the disease.
“They were all cast more for their character,” said Weissman. “I didn’t know any of them well. I was seeking interviews with people I felt had the desire and capacity to be introspective in an emotional way and put that history on camera. I only did a total of nine interviews to tell this incredibly epic history and only used five of them.”
Weissman said he and Weber often cried in the editing room. “But what we realized is that we were crying at beauty and not crying at sadness,” he said. “We were also crying, I think, with the realization of what the film potentially could do. It is very moving in positive ways."
“We are very much witnesses to what happened there,” said Boneberg. “I think all of us have a great sense of responsibility to the community and particularly to all the folks who did not survive to tell the story, to try to witness the best we can what we saw and the community’s response.”
Photo: David Weissman, left, and Bill Weber. Credit: Lori Shepler/Los Angeles Times.