Friday, 11 February 2011

Berlinale 2011, Day 2, Panorama: We Were Here, David Weissman, USA 2011

David Weissman calls his film a love-letter to San Francisco. But it is much more than that. The film's title - We Were Here - suggests an eye-witness account, someone having actively participated in something. And indeed, Weisman's film takes us back to the days when HIV and AIDS first emerged and threatened to wipe out San Francisco entire gay community (or, for that matter, gay communities everywhere). Through interviews and using rare archival footage, Weissman recapitulates the period between the early 1980s and mid-1990s, when San Francisco's gay community, which then was in the process of gaining strength and confidence following the Stonewall riots in New York a good decade earlier, was being stigmatised by the public at large as knowledge regarding the cause of AIDS and how it is transmitted, let alone a cure, was non-existent.

An important point - or, perhaps, the point - in Weissman's film is that he reminds us of the widespread solidarity within the gay community and how it was that solidarity that provided help and support where the government utterly failed. But rather than being polemical or pointing fingers, We Were Here is is a memorial to those people who generously gave of their time when the US government chose to ignore the epidemic, doing next to nothing to alleviate the plight of those who were infected, facing a mostly painful, miserable and often lonely, death. Moreover, the film memorialises all those who didn't live long enough to be able to benefit from the medication that has since become available and subsequently turned HIV from a lethal into a chronic disease.

In a time when gay communities around the world are hardly worthy of the term community as muscles, looks and which club to go to seem more important than political issues or gay rights - hard fought for by previous generations of gay men but taken for granted today - Weissman's film is particularly relevant. That a drug can be both recreational as well as a medical is something only few gay men under thirty may be aware of as they have most probably never heard of Indinavir, Norvir, Sustiva, or Retrovir, drugs, which to many have since become live-savers. Furthermore, as the use of condoms is losing in popularity, notably among gays in their twenties and thirties, We Were Here is an overdue reminder of why their use is as necessary as ever since to this day, HIV and AIDS still remains an incurable and ultimately deadly disease, notwithstanding the fact that its death rate - as far as the western world is concerned - has significantly dropped.

We Were Here is the biography of en era, documenting a crucial slice of gay history which, although it happened almost 30 years ago, represents the decisive point in the lives of the survivors. And it is seen through the eyes of these survivors that Weissman tells his story - an important story. The result is a little gem: Highly recommended viewing for everyone, gay or straight.