Near the end of David Weissman's We Were Here, an emotionally-charged exploration of the terrifying effects that the AIDS crisis had on San Francisco's gay community, Daniel Goldstein compares living through the era to surviving a war. The film, perhaps the most fully-bodied documentary to broach the topic, supports this analogy quite well; what better label could you apply to a struggle where so few of the engaged subjects emerged unscathed...or at all?
Weissman's work here mournfully comes to terms with the unmitigated disaster that hit this community, simultaneously celebrating and eulogizing the youthful, utopian village built by the individuals the disease attacked. The sheer amount of men cut down by AIDS in that time and place is difficult to come to terms with but We Were Here does a remarkable job of illustrating the scale and speed with which the infection spread through the city's young gay population. It's a terrifying and moving viewing experience, one made all the more emotionally complicated by the words and memories of those left behind in the crisis' wake.
For a film with loss at its center, We Were Here never resorts to glorification of the dead; it merely offers an unwaveringly humane perspective on a crisis that, due to the negative influences of media-induced paranoia and many political and religious institutions, still isn't fully comprehended by the majority of the country. It's a film that seeks to honor the dead and, in doing this, offers another chance for the living to reassess the epidemic for what it truly was: an immense tragedy that struck quickly and without warning, ending the lives of countless people who loved and were loved.
As an aside, had I seen this film last year, it absolutely would have ended up on my best of 2011 list, likely in the top 5.
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