Thursday 24 November 2011

We Were Here Review

We were here is a documentary that charts the devastation of the AIDS epidemic on the gay community in San Francisco, through testimonies from various people who lived through it, and how it found the strength to deal with it.

You might feel that this is a familiar subject and that a documentary on the subject might not cover any new ground. And to put it bluntly, with such a strong subject, any lazy filmmaker would just need to shove their camera in front of witnesses of the time and have some powerful footage. So it is all to the credit of directors David Weissman to have crafted a documentary that feels relevant and balanced, offering enough context to understand what was going on in the background of the epidemic, and giving the crisis a human face by not spreading themselves too thinly with too many witnesses, thanks to some very moving stories of the times.

Indeed what sets this documentary apart is the skilful way all the testimonies never feel forced to follow the directors' agenda, while still following a structure that shows the different phases: the first signs of a mystery illness, the first casualties, and then how the disease decimated a community that had to find the strength to support itself and fight back.

There is a female nurse who lived it both on a personal level through her gay friends who all fell victim of it, and on a professional level, offering care to those suffering of a illness nobody knew anything about at first. A shy gay man who had always felt an outsider on the scene until the epidemic gave him a purpose and made him feel part of the community, helping out those who were afflicted. An artist who saw friends and partners die while he was struggling with the illness himself. A flower seller in the heart of the Castro, a familiar figure in the community and powerless witness of the horror that fell upon it...

It is still incredibly hard for all of us who have just reached adulthood in the last decade to fathom what it must have been like to see your close friends being stuck by an unidentified illness and die, and whole parts of a community vanish in their prime. And it is a powerful reminder of what the gay community had to go through, at a time where its members thought they had finally found a safe place to live their life the way they wanted to: the mysterious illness, the fear and myths spread by the general public, the hatred spewed by religious types, and the lack of support from the authorities. Some chilling TV archive footage show that, in the early 80's, 50% of the Americans were in favour if HIV sufferers being tagged and even quarantined!

But just like any good film and documentary, We Were Here is not just meant with the narrow focus of the LGBT audience in mind. This is no Philadelphia like tear-jerker, this is the sensitive depiction of real lives we are talking about, and there are some heart-breaking recollections of loved ones being taken far too soon, friends, partners, a whole generation gone too soon, alongside some harrowing pictures of afflicted young men, wasting away and riddled with lesions, lest we forget the horror of the disease.

While avoiding the pitfall of a clumsy empowering subtext, it also offers the portrayal of a community, which while being accused of selfish hedonism at the time, was faced with an unprecedented crisis, and had to rely on itself and show so much strength and courage as well as solidarity and compassion, and the ability to look after its members, with the volunteering, the emerging organisations, the political activism, and how it became, in the words of a witness, the ultimate caretaker.

And if there is one powerful message to remember from this, it is how one of the witnesses explains how you cope with such a crisis: you just do, you have to, you do not have a choice!

A moving and still relevant portrayal of an era and of a crisis that must not be forgotten, We Were Here is a must see. We Were Here is out in the UK on the 25th of November on an exclusive presentation at the ICA in London, and then on DVD on the 5th of December.

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