By Jeff Walsh
A lot of times, when reviewing gay movies, I think that I am judging them far more critically than they may have been intended. Usually this frame of reference occurs when I think of the number of movies I have enjoyed in packed theaters of gay audiences, where every sassy comment and sexual remark was met with roaring laughter and people yelling back at the screen.
When I'm writing a critical review of a movie, I often wonder, would I have enjoyed this movie if I had watched it in that setting, as opposed to just popping in a DVD at home, myself, after work? It doesn't mean the movie would be any better, of course, but just shows how much the power of community can inform the experience.
On Sunday, I had the opposite experience watching an almost-completed print of "We Were Here: Voices from the AIDS Years in San Francisco." I knew it was going to be a heavy movie, given the subject matter, but I had no idea just how palpable the depths of sorrow flowing through the audience would be.
While I was seeing a powerful movie about how a community reacted in the early days of the epidemic, in a theater on Castro Street, the center of the gay community in San Francisco, many people in the crowd were seeing their own histories. When obituaries from the Bay Area Reporter appeared on the screen, they were seeing old friends who were lost. Or they were just reliving going through those times in a roomful of people who had done the same.
At one point, an artist and dancer is shown in silence on the screen, naked and clearly being ravaged by AIDS, in different dance poses. The images were powerful enough on their own but, as they appeared, a man toward the back of the theater just wailed several times from the depth of his being, in a theater that had already been punctuated by an undercurrent of sniffles and sobs throughout. You certainly felt that we were only hearing the one person who was unable to keep those feelings in, and that he wasn't the only one being affected this profoundly by the film.
It's the first time I've been to a movie premiere that felt like a memorial service.
The documentary uses five different people to tell its story. At first, it seems an impossible mission, that such a big story could be told through the experience of five people who lived through the epidemic. But the small cast of characters gives us not only every angle into the story that we need, but we get to go more personal and intimate with each of them as a result. This only shows the care the filmmakers exercised to pick its five people (Full disclosure, I am friends with one of the five people featured).
The film was expertly put together by David Weissman and Bill Weber, who also co-directed the Cockettes, the documentary on San Francisco’s legendary theater troupe of hippies and drag queens. They have assembled an amazing movie that captures the early days of a plague and shows people who didn't live through the epidemic what is an unimaginable, nearly incomprehensible taste of their lives. Just the thought of people who lost every friend and lover they ever had in the world, who then moved on and learned how to keep living.
Given my angle on this film, in thinking of Oasis readers as its audience, the really scary part of this film to me was that, with the prevalence of effective drugs, HIV has sort of disappeared. It is off our radar. We don't hear of it as much. We certainly don't see it. Risk is now even eroticized in porn with bareback videos.
But, according to a report issued by the CDC in March of this year, men who sleep with men are the only risk group where the annual number of new infections is increasing. This rising infection rate among gay men, in the history of the plague, has never gone down. The plague is only over in the sense that there are more drugs and less funerals.
So, while this amazing documentary shows us how the epidemic started, and I hope it is shown at GSAs across the country to pass on this important history, I still long to see a documentary in my lifetime that shows how it ended.