Monday 21 November 2011

Speaking out: "We Were Here"

David Weissman's talking-heads doc We Were Here - comprised of a series of interviews with survivors of the AIDS pandemic in Southern California - essentially picks up where last year's Gay Sex in the 70s left off. Its chosen period of investigation is that moment when the 1970s ceded to the 80s, and the party appeared to be winding down, if not decisively over, beginning with the assassination of Harvey Milk in 1979, and going on to chronicle the concurrent emergence of the (at that time, still mysterious) disease spreading like wildfire through the gay communities of West Hollywood and San Francisco.

Weissman has taken care in his selection of witnesses: of the five main interviewees, there are those who were at the very heart of this scene, and those who found themselves at a loss on Castro Street; some of them are HIV+, while others dodged the bullet, only to have to mourn the passing of others; there are also nurses and counsellors who saw the whole thing from their own perspective. Anyone possessed of any degree of empathy will be struck by the horror they describe: bodies breaking down in rapid and unpredictable ways, or disappearing off the map altogether in a matter of days, weeks, months. (Without setting out to be, the film forms a pretty formidable advert for safe sex.)

We hear distressing stories of mothers losing all three of their offspring to AIDS, of a father reacting with disgust upon only discovering his son was gay after being summoned to the hospital. The speakers give us a vivid sense of a community getting picked off, both from within and without: as the death toll racks up, the authorities sweep in to seal off once-thriving bathhouses as health hazards, while hospitals do all they can to avoid landing the AIDS tag. Mainstream society, at this point under the sway of Reaganite family values (if not the wholly Biblical rhetoric of fundamentalist hacks like Jerry Falwell), retreats ever further into the distance. San Francisco assumes the look and feel of an isolation ward, drained of all colour.

Yet gradually a secondary narrative emerges, one which finds the gay community coming together in the midst of the fear and prejudice - sharing information, reaching out to one another, drawing a collective strength from their plight. We Were Here leaves you in no doubt that AIDS was (and is) a debilitating force, but it also shows you how it unified a diverse and sometimes fractious subculture - inspiring lesbians to run blood drives for gay men, for example - and became a mobilising phenomenon: something that made people sit up and take notice, even if in just a panicked way, at first.

What we see is how AIDS got owned by the community it had terrorised, being transformed into a locus for art, protest, and finally hope; so it was that a disease that left so many sightless would come to open many more eyes besides - including, ironically, those of the straight society which had initially turned its back on its gay brethren, and which itself needed protection and education when the virus began to spread. The documentary is modest in its means, sober in its framing, yet it's all the better to refocus our attentions on a story that sits close to the counterculture, and why it has endured to this day: it's both a fine memorial to the fallen, and a powerful, moving illustration of the idea that that which doesn't kill you somehow makes you stronger.

We Were Here opens at the ICA in London from Friday before a DVD release on December 5th.

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