We Were Here

Bridging the Gap

An Interview with David Weissman, Director and Producer of We Were Here
by Alina Oswald

If we were to choose one AIDS story to tell future generations, what story would that be? We Were Here, David Weissman’s new documentary, stands out. The vantage point from which the award-winning director captures the AIDS crisis, as experienced in San Francisco, a city considered the epicenter of the epidemic, is unique.

While the story of We Were Here is specific to San Francisco, it’s also a reflection of what was going on in cities and towns across the country in the early eighties. The documentary takes viewers back to the beginning of the AIDS epidemic and weaves together its story in an incredibly epic history of the past thirty years.

We Were Here emphasizes a continuation of the AIDS story from its very title, which functions on multiple levels. We Were Here is a statement for those who were here and lost their lives to HIV/AIDS, and also for those of us who were—and still are—here. Together we’re part of the continuity of the AIDS epidemic.

The title came to Weissman in an intuitive moment. He found his interviewees by chance and intuitively knew their stories were meant to be included. “I’m very trusting in my intuition at this point in my career,” he explains when we talk on the phone. “There was something beyond historical experiences that I wanted from these people, a kind of emotional availability, a kind of willingness to be introspective on camera for their own benefit, as well as for the benefit of the viewer.”

The five characters—Ed, Paul, Daniel, Guy, and Eileen—are caregivers, activists, or people living with HIV/AIDS. They tell the complex and compelling AIDS story in intimate voices, giving it a sense of authenticity. Weissman chose to leave people on the screen for longer than they’d normally be in a documentary, and to have almost no music, so as not to interfere with the profound purity of the characters’ voices.

A motif in the documentary is people’s eyes. Many images in the documentary—archival film and still images that alternate with the interviews—show individuals facing the lens, like they are reaching out to viewers. This personal connection amplifies and reaches a new level of intensity in one of the stories in the film, in which Eileen, a nurse, talks about AIDS-related blindness and her work in studies of the eyes of those who’d died of AIDS.

Throughout the film there’s an emphasis on using imagery to allow for a maximum emotional binding between onscreen images and viewers, one able to bridge the intergenerational gap between today’s youth and that of three decades ago. Weissman hopes that We Were Here “will have enabled intergenerational dialogue, particularly among gay men….I think it’s an important conversation to have, and I think it’s overdue.”

A sixth character in the film is San Francisco. “I describe [We Were Here] as a love letter to San Francisco,” Weissman says. “I feel blessed to have been living in San Francisco during those years, because in the midst of all the horror that we were subjected to, there was this incredible community response and growth.…We Were Here speaks to the greater issue of people’s capacity to rise to the occasion when faced with adversity.”

Some may worry that the film would be depressing. “I understand that people might have that hesitation,” Weissman comments. “My experience is entirely the opposite. People find the movie incredibly inspiring and cathartic in positive ways. I’ve heard from very young people and from people from my generation that they found the movie incredibly healing and a wonderful experience.”

We Were Here premiered in 2011 at the Sundance Film Festival, made several “Top 10 Films of 2011” lists and was nominated for Best Documentary at the 2012 Independent Spirit Awards. We Were Here will broadcast on PBS’s Independent Lens in June and is available on Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, directly from the distributor, or at video stores. David Weissman encourages people to support their local video store.

Alina Oswald is a writer/photographer and the author of Journeys Through Darkness, a biography of AIDS. Contact her at www.alina-arts.com or follow her blog, Unconventional, at alinaoswald.blogspot.com.

June 2012