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A scene from We Were Here
David Weissman moved to San Francisco in 1976 and has been a fixture of the filmmaking community there, working on films like Crumb and In the Shadow of the Stars before directing his own movie (with Bill Weber), The Cockettes, a documentary chronicle of the legendary Bay Area performance group. With his latest, We Were Here, Weissman again digs into the history of the city, this time capturing the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. The following short conversation was conducted at Sundance before the first screening of his film.

We Were Here opens in New York at the Angelika Film Center on Friday, September 9, and in Los Angeles on September 16 at the Arclight Hollywood.

FILMMAKER: Tell me about the film.

Weissman: Well, the movie is We Were Here, a documentary about the human and community experience of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco. It’s the first film that really looks back at that era in a kind of comprehensive way. And yet there’s only five people in the film, so it’s unusual in that it utilizes five very personal journeys to evoke a bigger historical context.

FILMMAKER: And tell us about the people.

Weissman: They’re just five different people. They’re not famous people. All of them lived in San Francisco prior to the epidemic starting. They came because they wanted to be in San Francisco, because of what San Francisco meant. And it follows their journeys through it, how they became involved, or how they were affected by the epidemic to evoke the bigger picture of the piece. There’s a woman who worked in clinical drug testing, she was a nurse. There’s a guy who started the first activist organization ever around the epidemic, a guy who was a volunteer with the Ashanti project, which was a caregiving thing. There’s a guy who’s been sitting on the corner of 15th and Noe selling flowers, and then there’s a guy whose function in the film is essentially the spine of the film — his own personal illness, the deaths of his lovers, the deaths of his friends, his charitable work, his caregiving. It’s just extraordinary.

FILMMAKER: How did you identify the subjects?

Weissman: Completely organically. I didn’t really know how I was going to find interviewees, because I was looking for something other than information. I was looking for art and feeling and presence, and everybody in the film are basically just people who sort of popped into my vision in a particular moment. I knew all of them a little, and in conversation I thought, “Oh, they would be good.” I interviewed only nine people and there’s five people in the film.

FILMMAKER: So every interview is contemporary? There are no archival interviews of people from the era who have passed away?

Weissman: They were all interviewed in the last year and a half. They’re all people who are storytellers of the era that they’ve lived through. It’s four gay men and one woman who tell a big story. It’s not like a selection of anecdotes of just intimate stuff. It is very, very intimate, but they tell a large story.

FILMMAKER: How about the social and political dimensions of the AIDS crisis, and the debate surrounding public policy? Does the film deal with this dimension of the story?

Weissman: I think that it’s inherent in the stories because they’re told from personal and political vantage points — it’s kind of inseparable anyway, so I think all of that is in there. And I think that the film will serve to function to kind of remind people of the enormity of the situation that people were faced with, which then will bring up those kinds of issues and further conversation.

FILMMAKER: What do you want the film to accomplish in the world, and in what ways are you positioning the film to this? Is it to continue a dialogue, is it more of a look back to a period, or does it have an activist goal?

Weissman: I think it has a very activist goal, and in some ways my sense of that activist goal continues to expand. We had a screening in Salt Lake City yesterday, and it was a very emotional screening. At the end, after the Q and A, a woman comes up with two young girls and she says, “This is my 14 year-old and 17 year-old daughter who wanted to talk to you.” The girls were like, “Oh my God, we didn’t know any of this. It’s such an amazing movie, and we want our high school and junior high to show this.” So there’s a sense I’m feeling among younger people in particular of just enormous excitement when they see it because they don’t know anything about [this period]. At the core I really want it to be useful in the queer community, both for the people who lived through it as a healing tool, but also for younger people to understand how we got to where we are, and to help increase their consciousness around their own sense of community and HIV prevention. But, I mean, I had an 80-year-old woman see it in Washington who’s British who had no connection with the epidemic. She said it made her realize she doesn’t do a great job of taking care of her friends and that it made her rethink what kind of a friend she is. So I think the potential for activism specifically is clearest around HIV prevention and GLBT history, but I think [it functions within] a lot of other spaces — historical awareness around medical education, and all that kind of stuff.

WE WERE HERE (trailer) from David Weissman on Vimeo.

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