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Screens & Tech

The beginning of the AIDS crisis, by those who can tell the story

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

Early victim Bobbi Campbell (1952-1984) was the first HIV-positive person to come out.

It isn't often that those on the front lines of war or disaster survive to tell their story. That's what We Were Here does. Filmmakers David Weissman and Bill Weber put a face on the AIDS crisis that struck the San Francisco gay Castro Street district in the 1980s by focusing on five individuals — some gay, some not, some positive, some negative. These eyewitness accounts chronicle years of living through the terrible epidemic that still has no cure, vaccine, or surefire and affordable drug regimen.

AIDS struck at a time when gays were enjoying more visibility and acceptance in mainstream America in their struggle for equal rights. As the five individuals tell their stories through personal recollections, photographs, newspaper and TV reports, and as a community, the viewer is drawn into this incredible outpouring of grace and courage under fire. These first-person narratives are often painful, as are the images and videos of dying, mostly young gay men left defenseless by a deadly virus of unknown origin.

Early in 1981, the SF gay community began to question how this malady was passed on. Ed Wolf says it was called "gay cancer" at first. "I remember looking into the window of the Star Pharmacy and there were these little Polaroid photos on a poster," Wolf said. The posters depicted men with skin lesions and other early physical signs. "Watch out, guys. There is something out there."

Eileen Glutzer, a clinical researcher then and now, remembers: "I was handling blood one day, and the infectious disease fellow came in and said, 'Eileen, why don't you put gloves on? We don't know what this is.'"

Guy Clark, a street florist, recalls that everyone began reading the obituaries. "They went from a few inches to a full page and more," he said. The obit photos bear silent witness to fallen victims of all ages, famous and unknown, and of all races. Lesbians and the political group ACT-UP are shown leading in the fight to secure government funding and services that even today are still inadequate.

But there are success stories and small victories, as the community is shown providing health care, education, spiritual comfort, and establishing food banks. Most uplifting is the creation of the AIDS Memorial Quilt project that provided a visual representation of over 47,000 individuals that died from AIDS.

After 30 years, AIDS is still with us — from those living with AIDS to those rising HIV-infection numbers among minorities and at-risk youth who may or may not realize that AIDS still kills. This film offers both that history and the lessons.

We Were Here is an inspirational human story of how one community fought back to save themselves and ourselves. They are true heroes and role models. •

★★★★ (out of 5 stars)

We Were Here

Dir. David Weissman, Bill Weber; feat. Ed Wolf, Paul Boneberg, Daniel Goldstein (not rated)

Independent Lens
10 pm Thurs, June 14

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