As sometimes happens on a Sunday, I sank back on the couch this evening to see if there would be anything on the tube of interest.
And generally speaking there sometimes is something airing on a Sunday that is illuminating, reflective and powerful; tonight’s episode of Sunday Best is a case in point.
So I’ve just finished watching We Were Here, a powerful, heartbreaking account of the early years of the AIDS epidemic in San Fran in the late 70s. It’s an honest, poignant and heartfelt reflection on the devastation of the disease and its repercussions across both the LGBT community and the larger community.
We Were Here, directed by David Weissman, takes a deep and reflective look back at the arrival and impact of AIDS in San Francisco, without any grandstanding. It explores how the City’s inhabitants were affected by, and how they responded to, that calamitous epidemic.
Weissman focuses on five people who survived to share their reminiscences of the plague years, describing San Francisco during the heady days of the 70s when Harvey Milk energized the gay community. They recall the first warnings of the disease that would change all of their lives forever; the mass misunderstandings and misleading labelling of the disease as ‘mysterious gay man’s cancer’ and the subsequent battles to identify and treat this rampant and violent illness.
What struck me most, apart from the cumulative sorrow as these men recall the ferociousness of the disease – and the subsequent loss, trauma, death – is the absolute tenacity and humility of the victims of HIV, their lovers, friends, and their supporters.
One of the film’s subjects is Elaine, a lesbian who was a nurse back in the early ‘80s. A lot of folks don’t realize how the lesbian community responded in San Francisco when the crisis began.
“Anyone who lived through this and experienced these years will speak up about the lesbians and the non-gays who came up to help,” Weissman says. “There wasn’t that much closeness between the communities; this helped build a bond in the community.”
The way in which this empowered community slowly but surely, and with great strength and force, mobilised against the government with their sanctions and their discriminatory regulations and codes, and against the bigotry and hegemony of the church, is truly nothing short of inspiring and heart melting. That the victims of HIV kept fighting, even in the face of death, to affect change, to create awareness and to demand respect and dignity and accountability, was truly powerful and inspiring to me. The strength of the human spirit is often remarkable and surprising. Men who had lost their lovers and most of their friends and now were losing their own battle, were standing up to be heard, in the hope that their voice may make a difference for others. Truly remarkable and very humbling.
We all know of the mammoth destruction and the repercussions of the disease, but as a child back in the 80s I only saw it through innocent eyes. As a child I was never truly aware of the mass impact it had at the time as I didn’t live it.
By the time I was cognizant of these types of issues as an early teen, it was the 90s, a time of tremendous social change brought about by the hard work of the brave warriors and pioneers of the movement in the preceding decade.
Watching We Were Here this evening gave me a glimpse into that world, and the pain and fear that would have been rampant throughout the community. The sheer amount of men cut down by AIDS in that time and place is difficult to come to terms with but We Were Here does a remarkable job of illustrating the scale and speed with which the infection spread through the city’s young gay population. It also afforded me a wonderful insight into many, many touching and brave stories from the time. Hearing some of the survivors speak of their own losses truly gave me a sense of their incredible bravery and their monumental groundwork into AIDS awareness.
It speaks to our capacity as individuals to rise to the occasion, and to the incredible power of a community coming together with love, compassion, and determination.
As an important historical document it captures the voices of a lost generation, revisiting the devastation wrought by AIDS and the heroism with which many in the LGBT community responded to it. It recalls the spirit of caring and camaraderie that transformed the gay community in San Francisco and also awakened the compassion of many straight Americans who went through a sea change in their attitudes toward homosexuality.
Films like this make it apparent that you don’t have to necessarily identify as a LGBT to appreciate their plight and their endeavours; if you are a liberated, aware and conscious individual it will touch you deeply, leaving a strengthened sense of historical rootedness and pride in the LGBT community and its supporters.
Personally it also sparked within me some very sinister reflections on the roots of the disease and has given me reason to further inquire as to the origins of HIV /AIDS. I have never been truly convinced that HIV was a ‘naturally evolving’ disease and tonight I am even more the skeptic. Much to my family’s chagrin I have always been a proponent of conspiracy theories, and I have strong reason to believe that HIV was a bioengineered disease, released as a form of population control, or in this case, as a way of affecting mass genocide against a minority group that were somehow deemed ‘undesirable’ by someone with enough power and influence over the government.
BUT. I digress, and for now don’t wish to take away from the positive, uplifting message We Were Here has instilled.
I’ll save my conspiracy-based ramblings for another time.