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November 18, 2011

Evenings Out

AIDS in the long view

Film traces three decades in San Francisco

Thirty years ago, a new plague manifested itself, lying in wait in bloodstreams and bodily fluids until it was ready to emerge and decimate the lives of millions of people.

Now, we know much about AIDS and the virus that causes it, HIV. Back in 1981, still heady with the post-Stonewall high of a burgeoning LGBT rights movement, the sudden appearance of Kaposi’s sarcoma and cases of pneumocystis carinii pneumonia were a nightmare from which nobody woke up.

A new documentary, We Were Here: Voices from the AIDS Years in San Francisco, examines decades of the AIDS epidemic in one of its epicenter cities. It came after the euphoria of Harvey Milk’s election and the horror of his death, the injustice of the light sentence given to his killer and the disco-era fantasia that was the City by the Bay.

Through interviews with four gay men and a woman, the film tells the story of San Francisco’s first experiences with the disease, the organization of the battle against fear, apathy and complacency, the horrors of losing loved ones daily. It continues throughout the ensuing decades, through attempts to hold elected officials accountable for their lack of action, into the current day, when treatments work, when lives are lengthened if not saved.

Florist Guy Clark described the difficulty he had in talking to one specific customer who used to always come by on his bicycle to buy flowers for his sister. Then he had an eye patch. Following that, he came in a wheelchair, and Clark could no longer laugh with this once-vibrant person. It seemed to him that he was on his way out.

The so-called “cocktail” antiretroviral treatments hit, and Clark’s customer came back in without the patch. Then he was no longer in the chair, he was walking with a cane. A week before his interview was filmed, the customer came to pick up flowers--on his bicycle.

“He wasn’t the same as he used to be,” Clark noted. “But I’m not the same as I was 20 years ago, either.”

Nurse Eileen Glutzer, an ardent feminist, knew from an early age she would head to San Francisco. She helped found the Haight-Ashbury Women’s Clinic before the epidemic hit, and went to nursing school.

“Once I started working at the hospital, there were all these gay men, and it was really fun. We’d go clubbing together, to the I-Beam, to the Stud,” she noted. “I’d dance and go home and go to sleep . . . Unfortunately, none of those guys are alive today.”

“From the beginning, I just couldn’t stand the homophobia and the prejudice that was going on,” she said. “And the fear. There was incredible fear, right? These people were coming in and they were dying and nobody knew what it was and people get afraid.”

“There were people who were afraid to go into [hospital] rooms, so I found myself going into the rooms. If you’re not a family member, they wouldn’t talk to you, so if somebody’s partner was in there, the doctors might not explain to them what was going on, so I found myself talking to them,” she said.

That is the thread that connects the interviews together: These five people, like thousands, millions of others, did not sit back and watch the suffering, the death. They all got involved, whether working with the Shanti Project to give end-of-life counseling or simply being there for their friends.

All of these interviews are juxtaposed against the backdrop of video clips and photographs from the 1970s through to today; there are heart-rending clips of young men trying to put on brave faces at the doctor’s office as they are examined, but the terror in their eyes speaks more loudly than any scream ever could. Fading from one photo into another, showing the same person at the height of health, then at death’s door, might seem a relatively simple thing to do in a film, but it’s also incredibly effective and moving.

Director David Weissman has assembled a moving portrait of three decades of death, destruction, hope, perseverance and victory. It is certainly one of the most temporally wide-ranging AIDS films, although it might not be as powerful as some of the earlier narratives. It has the benefit of farsightedness; it is not a moment in time, not a snapshot, but rather a long view of decades and those lost to them.

For more information about We Were Here: The AIDS Years in San Francisco, search “We Were Here” on Facebook, or go to their website,




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