Do you still remember? The fear when the first reports of SARS came in, or when bird flu made its first victims? Or when the doomsday prophets of the Swine Flu drove everyone into the curtains? Do you still remember? Then multiply that fear by a factor of 100, and you get a bit of an idea of what happened in San Francisco in the early 1980s. When a mysterious disease spread death and destruction among the gay community.
The documentary “We Were Here” takes us to the heyday of that devastating disease, which after a while became known by the acronym AIDS. In We Were Here, we walk through history through the personal stories of a handful of survivors. These storytellers have in common that they lost friends and partners to AIDS and that they were involved, professionally or voluntarily, in caring for the patients. A nurse, a buddy, an activist. A flower seller who saw his clientele shrink every day. Literally.
The story comes to us in chronological order, with images of the storytellers alternating with photos and homemade videos from that time. The images tell a chilling story of healthy men who shrivel and die within weeks, sometimes days. We see the fear in the eyes of the first patients, the dismay of the partners, the comforting volunteers who had to deal with new victims every day. And fortunately we are also seeing the first tests with medicines.
The images are already shocking, the stories make it a lot worse. It is difficult, if not feasible, to keep your eyes dry when an artist sees his friend die on the way to the hospital. But there are also uplifting stories of sacrifice and solidarity. What about the lesbians from San Francisco, certainly not friends of the gay men, who spontaneously decide to donate the blood that is desperately needed. Why do they do that? Because in those days, lesbians are the only ones with guaranteed AIDS-free blood.
“We Were Here” is much more than an account of the early days of the AIDS epidemic. The film deals with the broader theme of everyday heroism in times of war. Because it was a war. In any case, “We Were Here” is a bewildering, moving and hopeful documentary that no one should miss.