See all coverage in our 2011 “Life, Positively” special section…

A participant at an HIV/AIDS demonstration. Photo Credit: Marie Ueda.

This year marked the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the AIDS Crisis. The 1980s was a turbulent decade for the LGBT community and especially for gay men. Marking the Crisis’ beginning has been difficult for the many who lived through it and lost friends, family and loved ones to the disease. For younger generations unfamiliar with the tragedy and urgency of the epidemic’s early years, noting the anniversary has been more academic than personal or emotional.

This year, screenwriter and director David Weissman — whose credits include the 2000 film “The Family Man,” 2001’s “Evolution” and 2010’s “When in Rome” — releases his “We Were Here,” a documentary profiling the earliest days of the Crisis at its epicenter, San Francisco.

Filmmaker David Weismann, Photo by Peter Berlin

The disease ravaged the city and its gay-popular Castro St. neighborhoods. By 1979, one “We Were Here” interviewee estimates, close to 10 percent of the city’s gay population was already infected with HIV. By the time HIV tests became possible near the mid-1980s, nearly 50 percent or more of the city’s gay men had already been infected.

The Crisis’ history is emotional and complex — very often an equal mix of painful remembrance and triumphant celebration. But, of the many purposes Weissman hopes his film fulfills, he says bridging the gap between older and younger generations, and particularly between older and younger gay men, is among one of the most important. For him, it’s about sharing community and history.

qnotes had the opportunity to chat with Weissman via phone just weeks before his film hits pay-per-view and video-on-demand services across the country on Dec. 9. The film is also slated for a DVD release sometime around June 2012, when PBS’ “Independent Lens” showcases it.

Matt Comer: So, you moved to San Francisco in 1976, right? Why the move?

David Weissman: I had been living in Venice Beach in Southern California. It was a bit bohemian, a poor people’s beach town. It was a wonderful, wonderful time and place there. But, Venice was gentrifying really fast and I realized that San Francisco was really where my people were, the sort of long-haired, artistic and politically-minded gay people. There was a huge community there unique to San Francisco.

Were you already out at the time?

It was a process, but, yes, I was already out. I was not so engaged in gay life in L.A. as much as I became engaged with it in San Francisco.

In your film, an interviewee says that HIV was already present in San Francisco as early as 1976. Then, according to your film, before anybody really knew there was anything wrong, a young man had posted photos of weird physical symptoms he was having on the glass window of a pharmacy. But, when was it that you got the first inclination that something was wrong?

I remember the very first article in Bay Area Reporter. In April 1981, there was a cluster of rare cancer found among gay men. In June of that year, another article originating from the Centers for Disease Control saying a cluster of rare pnuemonia had been found among gay men. So, I saw the very first press on it. I also remember seeing those photographs posted on the Star Pharmacy on Castro St. So, I was aware from the very beginning.

How did you react? Were you immediately scared or concerned or at the time, perhaps, you thought, oh, this is a fluke and it’ll pass?

I think everybody had their own particular combination of fear and denial that they worked through over time. I think initially we were kind of laughing about it. It was like we had our own gay everything — our gay mechanics and gay bankers — and now we have our own disease. I think pretty quickly it became clear that this was serious and once you knew someone who got sick you got scared pretty quickly.

How long did you live in San Francisco?

I still partially live there, actually. I was there full-time through 2004 and I’ve been back and forth from Portland since then.

So, this film is not a purely academic exercise for you, then. This is something you lived through.

It’s not academic at all — it’s one reason I decided to make the film. I felt like it was crucial that the story be told by someone who lived through it, rather than from an academic perspective. I’ve described it as me using these five people [interviewed in the documentary] to tell my own story.

Tell me a bit more: Why did you think it was so important for someone who lived through it to tell the story?

Act Up demonstrators. Photo Credit: Rick Gerharter.

It was just such a personal experience for all of us. I don’t know how someone coming in from the outside could have really grasped the emotional and personal immediacy of what happened. There are many people who comment on the intimacy and personal quality of the interviews. I think that quality reflects that the interviews weren’t done with someone from the outside — they were done with someone who had shared those same experiences. It was a personal feeling for myself, too; if I’d wanted to see a movie like this, I’d want to see it from the insiders’ perspectives.

Honestly, the intimate nature of the film struck me as I watched it with a close friend. It did seem very bare bones — there wasn’t a lot of music and not a lot of hype. I felt like the person on the TV screen was actually sitting across from me and having a conversation. Was that mood and tone purposeful?

Yes. It was 100 percent purposeful that the film be authentic and that there be no sentimentalizing at all. I made the decision very early on to have little-to-no music during the interviews and let the emotions speak for themselves without over-sentimentalizing it. The people are on the screen for a longer time — you see them pausing, thinking, stumbling over their words. The intention there was to really build trust between the person on the screen and the viewer — a feeling that you were having an unmediated, personal relationship with the person you’re listening to.

1981: Where We Were

The new documentary, “We Were Here,” takes audiences on an emotional journey back to 1981, when gay men in San Francisco’s Castro district came to the horrifying realization that a cluster of unexplained deaths was the start of a viral epidemic.

The actions of the sick and dying — and of the living, who refused to stand idly by — led to enormous strides in understanding HIV and AIDS. While there is not yet a cure for AIDS, great strides have been made in understanding, treating and preventing HIV transmission.

Just as gay men and others in the LGBT community in San Francisco were forced to face the ravages of the early years of the AIDS Crisis, so, too, did LGBT community members in places like North Carolina. Men and women of all ages, stripes and backgrounds came together to make change, making history in the process.

The world then, for those in as far flung places as San Francisco and right here at home in the Carolinas, was a drastically different time and place from today. Three decades after the beginning of the still-continuing AIDS Crisis, the world is radically different — with technology and opportunity that the earliest victims of AIDS could hardly imagine. Take a look at some of the facts, figures and events that shaped our pre-wireless, pre-internet world of 1981…

The friend with whom I watched the film asked me before we started it, “Is this going to be depressing?” Of course, I hadn’t seen it yet and didn’t know how to answer him. Do you get that a lot? Do people think the film will be depressing and do you find that disappointing?

People fear that it will be depressing, but, no one comes out of it saying that was their experience. People are finding the film inspiring, uplifting, cathartic and healing. Those are the words I hear the most. I certainly understand that people have a trepidation that the film will be a downer, but that’s not been the experience for most people. I had no interest in making a depressing film.

Is that a hurdle when we talk about HIV and AIDS and the 1980s AIDS Crisis — that people don’t want to talk about it because they think it will be depressing or that the issues are just too hard to deal with? Is that a major hurdle today in education and prevention?

I think that has always been a hurdle. I hope the movie will help ease that. Part of what led up to my way of conceiving the film was having conversations with men of my generation who had not wanted to talk about it because they didn’t want to bring other people down or didn’t want to sound like they were dwelling in the past. I also spoke with younger men who had expressed a tremendous interest in learning about that period, but were afraid to ask because they didn’t want to ask inappropriate questions. I’m hoping that this film will really empower both sides of that equation to ask questions of each other and to tell their stories.

If you don’t mind me asking, are you HIV-positive?

No. I’ve lived in San Francisco since 1976 and I’m still HIV-negative.

Of course, you knew people in San Francisco who were infected and who passed away?

Almost all of the obituaries [in the film] are people I knew — friends or colleagues or lovers.

As someone who is not infected by HIV, but who has certainly been affected, is there a different perspective there? Do you think you’d have had a different perspective in the filmmaking had you been HIV-positive?

Of course. First of all, if I’d been infected in the early years, I most likely wouldn’t even be alive. Very few people survived who were infected in the early years. Had I been someone who was infected and survived, yes, it’s an enormous and very controlling factor in people’s lives. As is being negative in the gay community is also enormous. There’s no way of escaping AIDS, even if we are in denial, it is still always there. I’m grateful I’m uninfected and am lucky. It’s an additional burden in life that I wouldn’t want to be carrying.

Why do you think today we are in a situation where young people — and really people of all ages — don’t know much about HIV and don’t want to talk about HIV? What has happened in the past 20 or 30 years?

The sense of urgency is different — for wonderful reasons. It’s not a completely fatal disease anymore. If people have access to medication, they can survive. It makes prevention more complicated when the fear of death is less of an important piece of the conversation. I think young people in general live much more dangerously than do people when they get older. That’s just a fact of life. I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about what the risks of HIV are. I think the prevention is a very difficult task. A lot of young people still associate sex with danger, which I think is probably an unfortunate way to think about sex. People need to find a balance in celebrating sex and sexuality and being careful about one’s health. And, yes, a lot of younger people are not cognizant of what the danger is to themselves or their responsibility in not continuing the epidemic. In some ways, there’s not a sense that getting HIV impacts anyone else, but only the people involved. The only reason we still have the AIDS epidemic among gay men is because of people consciously deciding to bareback. That’s just a fact.

Do you hope that your film achieves education, remembrance or social action — or, perhaps, all three?

All of those are all very important pieces of this. Really one of the main pieces is really helping encourage intergenerational dialogue among gay men around our history, our sexuality. One of the most beautiful reactions I’ve heard is from younger men who just feel this sense of gratitude for what the prior generations had to go through to get to where we are today.

What would be your advice to younger and older men who want to have this conversation, but who don’t necessarily know how to go about doing it? What advice would you give to those who might find those conversations uncomfortable?

I think people are just going to need to take risks, but do it in considerate ways — to say to someone, “I really want to hear your story and I could learn and benefit from hearing what you’ve gone through.” As much as that’s a difficult thing for a younger person to say, it’s also a beautiful thing for an older person to hear. It’s really important that people who lived through it find and acknowledge their own wisdom that accompanies the wounds of those years and to learn how to tell stories that are generous, but not about scolding. We need to tell stories in ways that are helpful to other people to hear, not about lecturing.

Are you excited about your film’s Dec. 9 release and upcoming DVD release?

Yes. The reaction to the film from audiences has made me so proud. The more people see it the better. It’s also playing in a lot of educational settings — universities and AIDS organizations. It’s being used in all kinds of contexts.

Do you hope to get the film into high schools? Do you hope to put a real human face to an issue that’s largely been faceless and more medical in nature to young people?

I do think it could benefit high school students. We had a group of high school students come to San Francisco for a screening and a panel. It was really wonderful. They found it humanizing on an issue they only knew of as admonishing fear in schools. They learn about AIDS as a danger, but not in terms of understanding the history and the human experience. These high school students were blown away by the movie. Young people will see this movie because they hear about it from their peers, not because older people tell them they should see it. It’s been wonderful to have young people seeing the movie and feeling a very powerful impulse to encourage their friends to see it as well.

What was the most powerful piece of either the completed film or the filmmaking process for you?

It’s still an ongoing thing for me. Re-engaging with this history has been a profound experience for me. Doing the interviews was very powerful. Each interview was like a super-intense therapy session for both me and the interviewee. Doing the editing process with Bill, my filmmaking partner, we cried almost every single day we were in the editing room. The experience of getting responses from all kinds of people on a daily basis — it’s been incredibly moving to hear from people who lived through it as well as people just learning the history for the first time. This film has been one of the most profound experiences of my life and continues to be. : :

Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.