Monday, October 22, 2012

We Were Here (October 25 at 6:45 p.m. and October 26 at 7:30 p.m. at the Cleveland Cinematheque)

[WE WERE HERE screens Thursday October 25th at 6:45 pm and Friday October 26th at 7:30 pm at the Cleveland Cinematheque.]

Review by Charles Cassady, Jr.

I seem to remember a Saturday Night Live joke of about 20 years ago - I forget which Not Ready For Prime-Time Player uttered it, but possibly Dennis Miller - to the effect that on the day they find an AIDS cure, if you still can't get yourself laid you never will. So...Drug "cocktails" prominently including AZT and similar inhibitors, are keeping the dreaded HIV virus at bay, a treatment if not a complete cure.'d you all do, uh, romantically? Yeah, thought so. Maybe quality of sex is not an appropriate question to ask of people who go online to read movie reviews.

Actually, the likes of Dennis Miller are not even called Not Ready For Prime Time Players anymore; seems SNL retired that tag long ago. That sure shows my age. And so does the fact that I remember a lot of the milestones evoked by WE WERE HERE, a documentary that aspires to tell the complete arc of the AIDS pandemic. Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome was once a regular theme of nonfiction features, most notably the wrenching SILVERLAKE LIFE and the Oscar-winning COMMON THREADS: STORIES FROM THE QUILT, not to mention a great portion of the indies at the Cleveland International Film Festival. These days AIDS seems to have receded from the agenda of filmmakers, fiction and nonfiction, and in this climate director David Weissman revisits the sad saga for a quite affecting look backward.

This isn't a Ken Burns chronicle of grand sweep and scores of high-profile witnesses (that probably will happen someday; wonder if the Romney types will see fit to cut all PBS funding), but rather a much more restricted POV - oral histories from five well-chosen, ground-level, non-celebrity residents of San Francisco. Interviewees - not even identified by name - saw the devastating onslaught of the "gay disease," from its earliest stirrings in the Castro Street homosexual playground/mecca of San Francisco (Harvey Milk cameos in an anecdote).

One speaker is a florist who found his blooms going to more and more hospital rooms and funerals of the dying and bereaved. Another is a gay man who never felt comfortable in a 1970s hothouse of discos and casual gay-bathhouse sex; with the spread of HIV he learned his down-to-earth nurturing personality made him an ideal sort of person for counseling in clinic wards.

A woman speaker is a nurse who found herself facing angry ACTUP protesters as she tried to learn more about treatment; for all the hatred she endured on the picket line, she still feels no resentment towards the militants who made AIDS an urgent front-burner medical issue. We are reminded that during the Reagan Revival a few American political candidates and pundits - right-wing fringies and buffoonish fascists, not taken quite so seriously as this documentary suggests - were raising the possibility of internment camps and tattooed warnings on the infected. Another interviewee is a patient who did come down with full-blown AIDS, felt his body failing slowly and torturously, and was brought back from the brink of death by the new drug cocktails.

Speakers talk about the more politically savvy lesbians and aggressive New Yorkers who came into town and mobilize against the slurs, stigmas and homophobia rained down upon the gay community,  none of those outside players are interviewed, perhaps in a narrative strategy to stay with the SF quintet. That's not the first time I've heard a charge that the west coast/San Francisco gay-male subculture, Stonewall riots and Harvey Milk notwithstanding, were fatally slow in reacting to a threat to their
existence. I guess for more on that I'd have to read Randy Shilt's book And the Band Played On, as if I'm not depressed enough about things already.

But this is not a movie about settling scores, finger-pointing or blame-laying. It stays away from that the way Oliver Stone stayed away from conspiracies and grandstanding in his WORLD TRADE CENTER. Both are worthy true stories of survival and resilience. (3 1/2 out of 4 stars)

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