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Screen Scene: "We Were Here" relives ground zero of AIDS crisis | VIDEO

(Editor's note: SDGLN Correspondent Kurt Niece has renamed his Hi-Def Dish column to Screen Scene to better reflect the subjects he writes about.)

“We Were Here” is a stunning piece of work set in San Francisco. Director David Weissman beats a path, both brutal and poignant, to ground zero of the AIDS epidemic. It transports viewers back to the golden age before the fall.

The documentary is not for the faint of heart. If you’re of a certain age or if AIDS has directly affected you or someone close to you, then quite seriously this is a film you may not want to watch alone. See it with a loved one or with friends or family but certainly see this film.

Hardly uncharted territory, this award-winning piece isn’t the first to document those times and it certainly won’t be the last. But “We Were Here” sets a new standard. This is a milestone.

Weissman skillfully directs a film that seems almost anthropological in style. The tone is straight forward and matter-of-fact, a style that’s very effective in depiction of one of the most perilous and inspiring passages in modern history, a period that affects us all to this day.

Gay, straight or indifferent, the world is not the same since then.

Photographs and film clips from the late 1970s and early 1080s preserve handsome, mustachioed young men, playing and laughing and looking deep into the camera or into each other’s eyes, blessedly unaware of what’s about to come.

Only film can capture the honesty and the naiveté of those “before” times, and only film befits the subtle and not so subtle emotions of those who lived to tell their stories. Five interviewees speak to the comradery and heroism of these terrible, pivotal times.

Ed Wolf, an education and AIDS activist recounts his first days in San Francisco.

It was the ‘80s and I remember thinking, ‘something’s going to shift.’

I moved to New York in 1971 and now I’m here in San Francisco in 1981, and that’s when everything changed. I remember, I went to the Castro Theater to see two Betty Davis films and I remember running down to the old Star Pharmacy because we wanted to smoke some pot and I didn’t have any papers. I remember looking in the window, and there were these little Polaroid photographs that this young man had made of himself. There were at least three, maybe four of them. Inside his mouth: big purple splotches. And then there was another picture. He’d taken his shirt and pulled it up and there were more, big purple splotches on his chest and stomach. Under the photographs was a hand-written note that said something like, ‘Watch out guys. There’s something out there.’

These are the stories that guide the viewer to the genesis of AIDS. It’s nearly impossible to grasp the zeitgeist of any age, but pre-AIDS seems especially challenging. The dawn of the epidemic can sound like one of your grandfather’s old war stories, a tale to be politely endured, but this is where Weissman’s insightful directing excels.

Those younger than 30 grew up with AIDS. It’s always been there for them. AIDS and HIV are an integral thread in the fabric of every person born after 1980. But those older than 30 have had a completely different experience. There was a time before AIDS and, believe it or not, there was a time when the sexual revolution was perceived as a good thing.

Activist Paul Boneberg, another interviewee, speaks to the prevailing attitude of the day.

Part of it, you’re having sex to have fun. Part of it, you’re having sex to find love, and part of it you’re having sex to rebel against the people who said you couldn’t have sex. All of America was feeling very confident that you could be much more sexual and that was OK. Venereal diseases or unwanted pregnancy: it’s all curable with a shot or a pill or something to that effect.

It’s hard to believe that there was such a time in this current, neo-Puritan America. There was a time when the Rick Santorums of the nation would have been considered fringe and ridiculous and hopelessly out of touch. It was the Age of Aquarius, and free love was a symbol of newfound liberation from the uptight social and sexual mores of the 1950s.

Those days are far behind us now. Children, young adults and many of those reaching middle age have been taught to fear sex and in the context of AIDS, not without reason. Yet to fully grasp the true horror of AIDS, it’s essential to understand the context.

A New York Times article, published July 3, 1981, was headlined: “Rare Cancer Seen In 41 Homosexuals.”

That is how the rest of the country began to understand that something was indeed “out there.”

First it was called GRID, or Gay Related Immune Deficiency. Then AIDS became the accepted term and finally HIV, the precursor.

Again, it’s easy to forget the level of panic and wild speculation. Poppers and secret government plots were suspect, and the cruelty of hard-core religion could barely contain the gleeful prospect of God’s vengeance.

These were fearful times made even more so because reliable HIV testing had yet to become available. There was a long period that was very much like living in a war zone: Friends, family, colleagues and lovers were suddenly dying at the hands of an invisible enemy.

AIDS was a deadly and accurate sniper, and no one knew who would be next.

Thirty-one years later, it’s a different story. For those fortunate to have access to medication, HIV is a manageable chronic condition, not a death sentence. But the damage was done.

AIDS assaulted and decimated a community that was changing the world, and one is left to wonder: What if?

The director speaks

Weisman took a few moments to speak by phone from Portland, Ore., about his documentary.

“We had an early preview in Portland before the film was finished," he said. "At the end, we had an hour and a half Q&A. About halfway through it, a young man spoke up with tears streaming down his face and said: 'I’m 23 years old and I’m HIV-positive, and I’m so in awe of what all of you went through. You made it possible for me to have medications and services, and I’m so appreciative of what all of you suffered, and have done.'”

The director continued.

“Then after a San Francisco screening, a man approached me and said, 'I’ve been HIV-positive for 25 years, and I found the film exhilarating.' That was a word I didn’t anticipate. I asked him why, and he said, ‘It allowed the demons to fly away.’”

“We Were Here” is well-named. It is a plea to always remember and never forget. “We Were Here” are words of defiance, and “We Were Here” is a joyful, democratic noise to everyone, regardless of age, race or status who have survived and thrived the ravages of a heartless, mindless virus.

Additional reading

"We Were Here" can be viewed by live streaming or by purchasing the DVD. To do so, or to learn more about the documentary, click HERE.

Kurt Niece is a freelance journalist from Tucson, Ariz., and author of "The Breath of Rapture." He writes about visual arts for SDGLN. He is also an artist who sells his work on his website.

WE WERE HERE (trailer) from David Weissman on Vimeo.

(Photo captions on the left: Top left, Rick Gerharter's photo of Bill Weber and David Weissman at the closing night of the Castro Theater run of the documentary, on March 3, 2011. Bottom left, historical photo from documentary website of gay guys in Haight-Ashbury in 1978. The website caption notes that the "two sweet guys on the left both died of AIDS in the 80s" and the "bearded beauty in the middle is thankfully a long-term survivor of it all, and one of the world's great kissers. Director David Weissman is pictured on the right, weaving a headband.)