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Author Topic: "N.Y. Times" on "We Were Here," San Francisco's Plague Years  (Read 2989 times)

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Offline edfu

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"N.Y. Times" on "We Were Here," San Francisco's Plague Years
« on: September 04, 2011, 03:35:28 AM »
September 2, 2011
One City’s Plague Years, in Small Details
By JESSE McKINLEY
SAN FRANCISCO

THE AIDS epidemic has been the subject of countless efforts at exploration and explanation in all manner of media, from popular films like “Philadelphia,” to Pulitzer Prize-winning dramas like “Angels in America,” to television tear-jerkers like “The Ryan White Story.”

But few treatments, dramatic or otherwise, have tried to tell such an encompassing story of the epidemic with as few characters as “We Were Here,” a documentary opening Sept. 9. It uses interviews with a mere five people who lived through the disease’s most destructive years in San Francisco to plumb its human toll, its social and political impact, the response in the city’s gay community, and the challenge it poses today as a treatable, but still dangerous, ailment.

“There was nothing extraordinary about the fact that you lose the people that you love, because it’s going to happen to all of us,” Ed Wolf, a soft-spoken AIDS educator and counselor, says near the beginning of the decidedly unflashy 90-minute film. “It’s just that it happened in this targeted community of people who were disenfranchised and separated from their families. And a whole group of other people stepped up and became their families.”

The film’s director, David Weissman, was one of those who lived through it. Mr. Weissman, 56, arrived here from Southern California in the mid-1970s, just as the city’s vibrant, tight-knit group of homosexuals was becoming a center of early gay-rights efforts spearheaded by Harvey Milk, and, as it turns out, the site of early infections of H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS.

But, Mr. Weissman said, revisiting an incredibly painful period of his life — more than 15,000 people, the documentary says, died from AIDS in San Francisco between its emergence and the mid-1990s — was initially not at the top of his list of possible films. “It was not an idea I relished,” said Mr. Weissman, whose last film was the 2002 documentary “The Cockettes,” about a group of legendary San Francisco drag performers.

What convinced him to undertake the film, however, was a conversation with a former boyfriend, a younger man who said that he simply hadn’t heard the stories of the height of the epidemic and was afraid to ask, a reaction Mr. Weissman likened to the trepidation involved in “asking your grandparents about the Holocaust.”

So it was that Mr. Weissman, working with his collaborator and editor, Bill Weber, began to conduct interviews in 2008 with acquaintances and strangers, shooting only nine interviews total, editing as they went.

And while “We Were Here” touches on many of the important topics of the battle against AIDS — including unsuccessful and painful drug trials and the growing gay political activism — Mr. Weissman and Mr. Weber said the intent was never to be encyclopedic but personal.

“It’s such a monstrous story, not just in terms of loss, but even in the local San Francisco story, there were things we couldn’t include, just because of time,” said Mr. Weber, 58, mentioning the city’s hospice movement as one example. Still, as the two men edited, they discovered that the testimonials allowed many topics to be broached.

“It became clear that even inside a sentence there’s a lot of ground covered,” said Mr. Weber.

Many of the stories in “We Were Here” tell small details that otherwise might not make the cut in a film aiming for a greater scope. A nurse, Eileen Glutzer, for example, recounts taking the eyes from newly dead patients for research. An artist, Daniel Goldstein, recalls a passionate kiss from his best friend just before that friend’s death.

Mr. Wolf, meanwhile, tells the chilling story of seeing a flier posted in a pharmacy window in the early 1980s, before AIDS had even been named. It showed a body riddled with Kaposi’s sarcoma, a type of cancer that often accompanied the disease. A caption on the flier read, he recalled, “Watch out, guys, there’s something out there.” Moments later, as he sat in the Castro Theater, in the heart of San Francisco’s longtime gay enclave, fear crept over him, Mr. Wolf remembers.

“It was already there,” he says.

The film played at the Castro shortly after its debut at the Sundance Film Festival this year. Ellen Seidler, a Bay Area filmmaker who was a co-director of the lesbian romantic comedy “And Then Came Lola,” was at one of the screenings, which were attended by younger gay men — for whom AIDS is a chronic condition, not necessarily a death sentence — as well as veterans of the worst of the epidemic.

“So many present had lived through that era and I think, for obvious reasons, had moved on to some extent,” Ms. Seidler said in an e-mail. Nevertheless, she added, “you could hear the sobbing and at times people cried out.”

Ms. Seidler said that though a new generation of gay men and women has moved on to other battles, over issues like gay marriage, she hoped that they would go see a film about an old fight. “I think today’s young gay men and lesbians really have no clue what went on during the thick of the AIDS epidemic, how devastating it was to so many of us,” she said. “Even if you weren’t directly impacted, you knew someone who was.”

Mr. Goldstein, 61, echoed her, saying that “the effect the film has had on people my age as well as younger people has been profound.”

“It has opened a dialogue that has been nonexistent for 30 years,” he said, adding that the movie has been “a vehicle for healing” and a sense of survival.

“I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me and said, ‘Thank you for telling my story,’ ” he said. “I think it instills in them a sense of pride in their community as well, even though they were little kids during the epidemic.”

Mr. Weissman said that kind of reaction from younger viewers — like his former boyfriend — have been deeply satisfying for him as well.

“Certainly you don’t want a disaster like AIDS to pull the community together, but I think there’s an incredible curiosity about it,” he said. “And I think that sense of continuum is important. It helps them understand who they are now.”
"No one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences."--Albert Camus, "The Plague"

"Mankind can never be free until the last brick in the last church falls on the head of the last priest."--Voltaire

Offline buginme2

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Re: "N.Y. Times" on "We Were Here," San Francisco's Plague Years
« Reply #1 on: September 04, 2011, 03:41:45 AM »
I have been wanting to see this for some time now it just hasnt played at all in my city.  Is it just opening in NY on Sept 9 or all over?  I love the trailer for this film, the guy that says "your bus ticket better say san francisco" always makes me chuckle.  I hope I get to see this soon.

Offline edfu

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Re: "N.Y. Times" on "We Were Here," San Francisco's Plague Years
« Reply #2 on: September 04, 2011, 04:00:41 AM »
These are the currently known release dates:

New York – September 9, Angelika Film Center
Los Angeles – Sept. 14 GALA PREMIERE BENEFIT  For Project Inform
LA – September 16, Arclight Hollywood
Pasadena – September 16, Laemmle Playhouse 7
Palm Springs – September 30, Camelot Theaters
San Francisco – September 30, Castro Theater
Berkeley – September 30, Rialto Elmwood
Portland – October 14, Fox Tower
Atlanta – October 14, Regal Tara
Washington DC – Oct. 14, West End Theater
Denver – November 25,  Starz Filmcenter

In addition, here are some scheduled film-festival screenings:

Fresno Reel Pride
September 17

Human Rights Film Festival Syracuse, NY
September 16

Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival
September 8

Outflix Memphis
September 8

It is expected that more release dates will be added later.  Also, the film is still supposed to be shown on PBS-TV some time in early 2012.

----------

P.S. Mick LaSalle's review in the "San Francisco Chronicle":

There are moments in "We Were Here," a documentary about the AIDS crisis in San Francisco, that are almost unbearable. These are followed by still other moments, equally unbearable, until the emotional strain of hearing of other people's sorrow and tribulation becomes simply too much - certainly too much for words. And always, there's this thought: If just hearing this is so devastating, what must it have been like to live through it. Or not live through it.

"We Were Here," directed by David Weissman and Bill Weber, has the force of a great war documentary. There is no turning away from the screen. You could watch this film from the other side of the world and at some completely different period of history and yet still receive it as something personal, with a mix of fear, outrage and awe at the suffering that is so often the lot of human beings - but also with a feeling of transcendence, at how often people can stay human and even come into their deepest humanity when facing the absolute worst.

Uncommon eloquence
Virtually any example from this beautiful and richly detailed film might illustrate this phenomenon. Here's just one: There were men who knew they would be dead in a matter of days or weeks, desperately ill men in their 30s and 40s who, not long before, had not thought of death as more than an abstract concept. These men got up from their sickbeds and traveled across the country to Washington, in tremendous discomfort, to speak out on behalf of AIDS research. They didn't do it for themselves. They knew they were beyond help. They did it for the people who would come after them.

The film is told through the recollections of a handful of survivors, chosen for the specifics of their vantage point and, presumably, for their uncommon eloquence: More than two decades after the events described, their memories are clear and raw. There's a political activist, a hospital volunteer, a frontline nurse and researcher, and a florist who would watch people pass his corner every day. One week, they'd be young and healthy; the next week, they'd be walking with a cane. The week after, they'd be in a wheelchair, and the next week, they'd be gone.

A man who has survived AIDS for many years talks of having volunteered once for a cutting-edge study taking place in a number of cities. He dropped out of the study because the experimental drug was making him nauseated. Within months, every man in that study died, including his longtime lover. Two days before, another friend died. Two weeks later, his best friend died. "It was an avalanche," he says.

The film uses archival footage to recall the almost medieval nature of these early AIDS days. You see young men in their early 20s wasting away and people with ghastly and disfiguring sores all over their body. Then you see what these people looked like before they got sick. The images are heartrending.

"We Were Here" tells us of a moment within a community when the most seemingly benign of symptoms were almost invariably the first signs of some rapidly descending doom. What is this spot in my eye? What is this discoloration on my skin? We all know what it's like to have something curious pop up and to ask a friend or loved one, what is this? Almost always, it's nothing, it goes away. But in the early '80s, it was as if people had passed through a mirror into some zone of absolute nightmare.

Bridging the distance
The film documents the nightmare and tells some of the stories of people who can't speak for themselves and deserve to be remembered. It also makes an assertion that seems true, that sometime around the mid-1980s, the gay community was pretty much on its own, ignored by Washington and demonized by nominally Christian leaders of the religious right. "We Were Here" argues that the gay community's rallying in the midst of this devastation constitutes its finest hour.

Speaking of finest hours, seeing this film reminded me of when, as a teenager, I'd watch some World War II documentary and then look at men of around 60 and think, hold on, this guy might have been at the Battle of the Bulge or Guadalcanal; he's probably seen horrors I've never dreamed of. "We Were Here" may similarly alter people's perception of gay men of a certain age. The men of that generation went through something so terrible, profound and life-changing that they can't really talk about it, and even if they did, who could fully grasp it anyway?

But if any movie can bridge that distance between those who were there and those just hearing about it, it's this one.

-- Advisory: This film contains graphic images of illness. It's disturbing, but it's life.


« Last Edit: September 04, 2011, 04:28:54 AM by edfu »
"No one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences."--Albert Camus, "The Plague"

"Mankind can never be free until the last brick in the last church falls on the head of the last priest."--Voltaire

Offline emeraldize

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Re: "N.Y. Times" on "We Were Here," San Francisco's Plague Years
« Reply #3 on: September 04, 2011, 09:07:36 AM »
I saw it, last March, in a special preview. It's well worth seeing especially for those of us who are poz and were never involved in the beginning impact of AIDS' diagnoses.

It helped me to understand what our LTS brethren and their allies were experiencing -- the horror, the huge losses, the obvious need for vigorous activism, the understandable surprise at the lack of current-day activism and so on.

Offline leatherman

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Re: "N.Y. Times" on "We Were Here," San Francisco's Plague Years
« Reply #4 on: September 04, 2011, 10:55:10 AM »
thanks for keeping us up-to-date on this film. ;)

I have been wanting to see this for some time now it just hasnt played at all in my city.
Also, the film is still supposed to be shown on PBS-TV some time in early 2012.
or a DVD release would be nice.

This kind of film sadly will never play here in SC (land of the Bible, Baptist teachings and the Tea Party), so until there's a TV or DVD release, all I can do is follow the film's FB posts and your comments here.
leatherman (aka mIkIE)


chart from 1992-2013; updated 2/09/13  Reyataz/Norvir/Truvada

Offline Miss Philicia

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Re: "N.Y. Times" on "We Were Here," San Francisco's Plague Years
« Reply #5 on: September 04, 2011, 11:31:02 AM »
AFAIK it didn't even play at the annual Philadelphia QFest in July (very large LGBT film festival, not sure may even be the largest like this on the east coast).

We even have a 12-screen Landmark Cinema which only plays foreign/indie type titles and I thought for sure this film would show up even if for a week or two. Hopefully it will still eventually show up.
"I’ve slept with enough men to know that I’m not gay"

Offline wolfter

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Re: "N.Y. Times" on "We Were Here," San Francisco's Plague Years
« Reply #6 on: September 04, 2011, 12:11:05 PM »
Just reading this post brought about old emotions, I can't imagine what would happen if I saw the entire film.  Seems like a lifetime ago yet also feels like it just happened.
Complacency is the enemy.  ;)  Challenge yourself daily for maximum  return on investment.

Offline Theyer

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Re: "N.Y. Times" on "We Were Here," San Francisco's Plague Years
« Reply #7 on: September 04, 2011, 02:31:16 PM »
I am relieved that this film has been made,there is a great need to document that awful period.I await its UK showing
thanks edfu
  Seems like a lifetime ago yet also feels like it just happened.
Agree, my mood has changed since I read this thread that sense off fear and grief, It will never go away.
theyer
"If we can find the money to kill people, we can find the money to help people ."  Tony Benn

Online Joe K

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Re: "N.Y. Times" on "We Were Here," San Francisco's Plague Years
« Reply #8 on: September 04, 2011, 05:54:44 PM »
I saw it, last March, in a special preview. It's well worth seeing especially for those of us who are poz and were never involved in the beginning impact of AIDS' diagnoses.

It helped me to understand what our LTS brethren and their allies were experiencing -- the horror, the huge losses, the obvious need for vigorous activism, the understandable surprise at the lack of current-day activism and so on.

For these very reasons, I don't know if I could watch the whole movie.  It's great that it can educate others about a horrific time, but for someone who lived through it, I'm just not sure I could handle it emotionally.

Offline emeraldize

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Re: "N.Y. Times" on "We Were Here," San Francisco's Plague Years
« Reply #9 on: September 04, 2011, 06:46:59 PM »
For these very reasons, I don't know if I could watch the whole movie.  It's great that it can educate others about a horrific time, but for someone who lived through it, I'm just not sure I could handle it emotionally.

To you, Joe and Wolfter, I can guarantee you would be moved, reminded and likely cry. I'm certain by threads of yours I've read, you could author the storyboards of your city's version of the scene. I was moved and cried -- the room full of viewers was so very still afterward. A few old-timers in the room got up and said some things they were reminded of having lived through. All involved in the movie did a thoughtful, bare bones job of putting it all together. It is plain, warm, factual, respectful and gratitude-provoking.

Online mecch

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Re: "N.Y. Times" on "We Were Here," San Francisco's Plague Years
« Reply #10 on: September 04, 2011, 07:32:37 PM »
I was there 1985.  I was young, all my friends were young, and few were daily implicated in this horrifying AIDS "mist" -- that you saw and felt everyday.   Everyday, as surely as the cold fog rolled in everyday, you'd run up against something grim or cold or sobering or sad.  It was a very odd time. 

When I moved to NYC a year later, it had to be as grim of a situation by the numbers,  but I guess the city is so much bigger and harder, and all about career and money for a lot of us in the go go 80's, I never felt this AIDS mist lurking around NYC.  Purely my own personal perspective, experience, of course.  Even when I soon had HIV+ friends and a bit later a poz bf, and lost loved ones, never that chilling mist or atmosphere, like a fallout I guess. 

Cities do degage their own atmospheres.  And of course these change with the times in each city, too.
“From each, according to his ability; to each, according to his need” 1875 K Marx

Offline zach

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Re: "N.Y. Times" on "We Were Here," San Francisco's Plague Years
« Reply #11 on: September 04, 2011, 08:34:23 PM »

For these very reasons, I don't know if I could watch the whole movie.  It's great that it can educate others about a horrific time, but for someone who lived through it, I'm just not sure I could handle it emotionally.

To you, Joe and Wolfter, I can guarantee you would be moved, reminded and likely cry. I'm certain by threads of yours I've read, you could author the storyboards of your city's version of the scene. I was moved and cried -- the room full of viewers was so very still afterward. A few old-timers in the room got up and said some things they were reminded of having lived through. All involved in the movie did a thoughtful, bare bones job of putting it all together. It is plain, warm, factual, respectful and gratitude-provoking.

guys, i think em has a great idea. i will be seeing it in atlanta, and i know i would benefit from a lts reaction to the film, i'm sure others would as well. i can only say i understand how painful it would be to watch from your pov. when the truth is, i have no idea. i'm too young, my experience with hiv began post haart.

Online Jeff G

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Re: "N.Y. Times" on "We Were Here," San Francisco's Plague Years
« Reply #12 on: September 04, 2011, 08:38:45 PM »
For these very reasons, I don't know if I could watch the whole movie.  It's great that it can educate others about a horrific time, but for someone who lived through it, I'm just not sure I could handle it emotionally.

I feel much the same as Joe wrote about here . I think I can handle it emotionally but I just do not want to go back there again at this particular point in time in my life .  

Just thinking about it brings back memories of being young and involved with what should have been happy times where I was very much alive while dieing inside . I have my own documentary inside my mind that is still being played out even after all this time and its not finished yet . Its a documentary of hope just for today .  

Online Joe K

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Re: "N.Y. Times" on "We Were Here," San Francisco's Plague Years
« Reply #13 on: September 04, 2011, 09:37:44 PM »
guys, i think em has a great idea. i will be seeing it in atlanta, and i know i would benefit from a lts reaction to the film, i'm sure others would as well. i can only say i understand how painful it would be to watch from your pov. when the truth is, i have no idea. i'm too young, my experience with hiv began post haart.

Zach, I mean this in the nicest way possible, but you will never understand how painful those years were, unless you lived them.  I know people mean well, when they say they understand, but if you weren't there, you will never understand... and that's a good thing.  In sharing our history, we can only hope to explain what happened, because we can never hope to actually understand the real horror.  It was a humbling time to be alive.

Offline wolfter

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Re: "N.Y. Times" on "We Were Here," San Francisco's Plague Years
« Reply #14 on: September 05, 2011, 12:17:50 AM »
I feel it's important for anybody who did not witness this firsthand to watch it and learn the lessons from it.  I guarantee it would spew forth emotions that I've finally managed to partially bury.  Therefore, I don't need relive that dark period.  I survived it once and doubt I could garner any additional understanding of the history of this disease.

JG, I really enjoyed your comments regarding living out our own documentaries.  For many of us, we're finally adding some happy chapters to this long saga.
Complacency is the enemy.  ;)  Challenge yourself daily for maximum  return on investment.

Offline Theyer

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Re: "N.Y. Times" on "We Were Here," San Francisco's Plague Years
« Reply #15 on: September 05, 2011, 01:14:17 PM »
Times are much better now but I don,t experience such a line in the sand how I am now is because off how I was then and I very much want to see this film. I am delighted by em,s description off the matter of factness , its unflinching but unflashey treatment.

What I hope is that it gets shown on British TV, BBC2&4 and CH4 show independent documentaries as this will increase its viewers, though I want to see it with others to feel what the group response is.
theyer
"If we can find the money to kill people, we can find the money to help people ."  Tony Benn

Offline edfu

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Re: "N.Y. Times" on "We Were Here," San Francisco's Plague Years
« Reply #16 on: September 09, 2011, 05:17:23 AM »
Review from "New York Times" for opening in NYC today:
       

September 8, 2011
Movie Review | 'We Were Here'
In a City’s Plague Years, Caring for Their Own
By STEPHEN HOLDEN

“There was nothing extraordinary about the fact that you lose the people you love because it’s going to happen to all of us,” observes Ed Wolf, a gentle, gay San Franciscan in his mid-50s who devoted years to counseling dying AIDS patients during the peak of the epidemic. “It’s just that it happened in this targeted community of people who were disenfranchised and separated from their families. And a whole group of other people stepped up and became their family.”

The family or community, whatever you want to call it, that coalesced around a public health emergency is the story of “We Were Here,” an extraordinarily moving, beautifully edited documentary directed by David Weissman (“The Cockettes”) and Bill Weber. Mr. Wolf’s remembrance of how the city’s gay and lesbian citizenry united and mobilized to care for its own establishes the film’s steady elegiac tone.

“We Were Here” is an unblinking chronology of the epidemic, recounted by five people who lived through it and watched countless friends and lovers die. The disease infected roughly half of the city’s gay male population, killing more than 19,000 by the end of 2009; some 15,000 more, sustained by a life-extending cocktail of drugs that became available in the mid-’90s, were living with H.I.V. The film’s before-and-after pictures of joyful, carefree young men reduced to haunted, hollow-eyed skeletons covered with the lesions of Kaposi’s sarcoma evoke World War II photos of concentration camp prisoners.

As grim as some of its images are, “We Were Here” is above all a film about love: not romantic love but the kind that really matters, in which people selflessly show up and keep on showing up for one another in the worst of times. The experiences of Mr. Wolf and of the film’s other eloquent witnesses — Paul Boneberg, Daniel Goldstein, Guy Clark and Eileen Glutzer — profoundly changed their lives. These are people who didn’t run away and hide; you want to hug them.

Mr. Wolf, who recalls being “terrible at anonymous sex,” notes how he belatedly found a way to bond with gay men as a volunteer caregiver for the Shanti Project. Mr. Clark, a former dancer turned florist and a 30-year resident of the Castro neighborhood in San Francisco, who donated funeral flowers to men whose resources were exhausted by their illness, talks of finding his spirit.

Mr. Boneberg, a hippie from Buffalo who briefly lived on a commune, served as executive director of Mobilization Against AIDS, one of the first such activist organizations, and became something of a political firebrand. He remembers the divisive issue of whether to close the bathhouses, which had been considered “core institutions” of the city’s gay culture, at the epidemic’s height. He was a leader of the successful campaign to defeat an AIDS quarantine ballot initiative proposed by Lyndon LaRouche.

The right-wing attacks never gained traction, Mr. Boneberg suggests, because the compassionate response of San Francisco’s gay and lesbian residents helped demolish the stereotype of homosexuals as selfish, amoral hedonists.

Mr. Goldstein, a New York-born sculptor who founded Visual Aid and Under One Roof, nonprofit organizations that generate money for education, medical and support services, is himself H.I.V.-positive. Amazed to have survived after losing two lovers to AIDS, he says he has just begun to accept that he has a future. Ms. Glutzer, a feminist and a nurse, cared for the dying at San Francisco General Hospital and helped supervise the clinical trials of several AIDS drugs.

The story begins in the late 1970s, when the Castro became a mecca for gay men drawn to the city’s free-spirited, post-hippie ethos in an era of sexual liberation.

“If you took a bunch of men and said, ‘Have as much sex as you can,’ how much sex would they have?” Mr. Boneberg asks. “A lot of sex.” Archival photos of handsome young men, their arms flung around one another like victorious soldiers on the front lines of a cultural revolution, are inescapably poignant.

“We Were Here” has a tragic arc. By 1978, when Harvey Milk, the San Francisco city supervisor and so-called mayor of Castro Street, was slain, H.I.V. was already spreading among the gay population, although its presence hadn’t yet been felt. Even then, one man estimates, one-tenth of the population was infected.

Mr. Wolf remembers looking in the windows of a drug store where Polaroid photos were posted with a scrawled message: “Watch out, guys. There’s something out there.”

“We Were Here” remembers the desperate, often futile search for drugs and the formation of the militant AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, whose actions helped speed the development of the AIDS cocktail that eventually cut the death rate.

Personal stories — of a lover who died on the way to the hospital; of a mother who lost three sons to AIDS; of a plane trip to Washington in which gravely ill patients roused themselves from their sick beds to make the journey to advocate for AIDS research; of patients who donated their eyes for research on infections that were causing blindness — are harrowing and inspiring.

Throughout “We Were Here” there is not a hint of mawkishness, self-pity or self-congratulation. The humility, wisdom and cumulative sorrow expressed lend the film a glow of spirituality and infuse it with grace.

WE WERE HERE

Opens on Friday in Manhattan.
"No one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences."--Albert Camus, "The Plague"

"Mankind can never be free until the last brick in the last church falls on the head of the last priest."--Voltaire

 


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