David Weissman: We Were Here

Thirty years since the first diagnosis was made, and with Worlds AIDS Day next week, we speak to the director behind a doc looking closer at San Francisco's gay community in the 70s and 80s

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A staggering 33.3 million people are living with AIDS globally today – a number that tragically emphasises the ongoing severity of the epidemic 30 years after the first diagnosis was made. This year marks the anniversary of the devastating outbreak, and in memory of the suffering caused by the infection, American director David Weissman has released a film titled 'We Were Here', which concentrates on the experiences of members of the San Francisco community, a city that was at the centre of gay liberation in the 1970s and 80s. The film focuses on those affected by AIDS, whether they are AIDS survivors, care volunteers, or simply those who witnessed the epidemic sweep across the city, which killed more than 15,000 in San Francisco between its emergence and the mid 1990s. .

The heartbreaking film is elevating in its attempt to convey the sense of determined community spirit that was present throughout the hardship, a lesson still relevant today for those who weren’t necessarily there to witness the degree of suffering the San Franciscan neighbourhood endured. We spoke to David to find out more about this tragic yet inspirational film… 

Dazed Digital: You co-directed the 2001 documentary The Cockettes, also based in San Francisco. Can you tell me a little about your relationship and affinity with the city?
David Weissman:
From when I was around 11 years old, San Francisco was already like magic for me. I visited there as a kid and I thought it was beautiful in a way that Los Angeles wasn’t. And then, when I realised that there were not only hippies there, but hippies who were gay, that, when I was coming out became even more appealing for me. I moved there in 1974, with hair down to the middle of my back and I came into this incredible community of politics and activism and psychedelic drugs and rock and roll and all of this stuff that was really manifesting in San Francisco in a way that was unlike anywhere else in the world. 

DD: You were personally present throughout the epidemic, what made you decide to tell the story now?
David Weissman: It is not something that I ever imagined myself doing. The catalyst was a conversation with a much younger boyfriend who had heard me talk about my experiences of those years and he said, “Well why don’t you make a movie about it?” – which initially seemed like the last thing in the world I would want to do. But I realised very quickly that it was something that really needed to be done and I felt very strongly that it needed to be done by someone who had lived through it, rather than someone who hadn’t been there. So it just started to make sense very quickly. 

DD: Can you tell me a little about the title, We Were Here? It sounds very much like an affirmation of existence. Do you feel as though the 80s epidemic has been somewhat forgotten?
David Weissman: Even those of us who lived through it have forgotten [to some extent]. So, I do think that is the case. The title is an affirmation of existence, it’s an affirmation of the dead and it is an affirmation of having taken a stand in that period. History does get forgotten, but it does need to be documented. Particularly for gays and lesbians, it is important to realise that the AIDS epidemic, in many ways, is the biggest piece of our history since the Stonewall riots. It has dominated gay life. So I think that in terms of understanding where we are politically with AIDS itself, and in understanding our relationship with the world, it is essential that this story be told.

DD: Ronald Reagan, at the time, retained a determined silence on the epidemic. Why do you think there was this refusal to acknowledge or help the situation from a political point of view?
David Weissman: San Francisco was a place where gay people had already developed an enormous amount of political power and freedom, and in this way was unique. I think that for the most part, people still hated us. It has lessoned since then but it was really much more extreme in that period. At first, people didn’t know that it was sexually transmitted – for it to effect sexually active gay men was an assumption. I think that, certainly many people’s religious underpinnings brought out their worst instinct, you know, by saying that it was God’s punishment for us. I think that most people really didn’t give a damn whether gay people were sick or died. The film reflects on and focuses more on San Francisco in terms of the internal battle with the epidemic and leaves the battles with Washington, so in a sense, it is a more positive portrayal of the period than say a New York film might be, where they had a much more hostile infrastructure.

DD: It seems as though San Francisco was more of a haven or ‘safe place’ where gay people could go to be accepted into the community…?
David Weissman: It was, and I think the kinds of people who had moved to San Francisco in the 70s had really impacted the way the epidemic was handled. But even the city government with whatever problems it had, was fairly quick with its response to the news. This was not the case in other places.

DD: Do you feel as though there is still stigma attached to HIV and AIDS today?
David Weissman: My guess is that when parents find out that their kids are gay, it is still a significant initial response, the fear of their child getting sick. I think it is a legitimate fear, because it has tended to be and continues to remain on epidemic levels. But I think that the whole terror of the disease has diminished and for legitimate reasons, but also for problematic ones.

DD: What can society now learn from the reaction to and handling of the 80s epidemic?
David Weissman: The circumstances are so different now because of communication. There was no Internet, there was no email and there was no access to instant research. It’s almost hard to remember that we didn’t have Google! Everything was in print. It’s interesting actually, a woman from the UK saw the movie at a screening in the States and she was probably about 70 and she said that she had no connection to anything whatsoever to any of it, but what the movie did for her was that it made her realise she was not as good a friend as she thought she could be to her friends, and that she needs to be more thoughtful about how she responds when people are in need.

I just thought that that was one of the most beautiful responses: it had nothing to do with AIDS at all. It was to do with how one behaves in the world. I think, in some ways the most powerful message in the film is from Eileen, who is a nurse and says, “I don’t have to worry when I am old and looking back on my life that I didn’t do anything to help.” On a larger level, such a wonderful message coming out of the film is the importance of compassion, the importance of being responsible to one’s body and the importance of being responsible for caring for other people as well – these are all the fundamental messages of the film.

DD: Can you tell us a little bit more about the ‘San Francisco Model’? How did this show of united activism help the rest of the world’s suffering?
David Weissman: Ed, who is one of the interviewees from the film is currently doing a lot of consultancy work in Africa, and has been working on microbicide trials to help women to protect themselves from the infection. He showed the film to a bunch of African activists and women and they really wanted the film to be shown, partially because it showed people being so comfortable with being gay, and how empowering that would be. Obviously it depends on the circumstances in different places, I mean, where you have a national health plan, it’s different.

Part of what happened in San Francisco was in response to the fact that we don’t have national health. So communities and organisations came forward. But I think the response in San Francisco was also down to the countercultural and political characters in the city, who were totally unique. I hope that one of the things reflected in the movie is the comfort with the honesty and directness in expression, which I think is not so common in most cultures in the world. There is a great beauty in vulnerability and in openness, and in sharing ones true heart.

DD: One of the most terrifying things that struck me in the film is the feeling of the unknown – the sense that you know something bad was happening but ultimately without the knowledge of what. How did this affect the atmosphere in San Francisco?
David Weissman: It was a constantly evolving mixture of terror and denial and they both co-existed in each of us to varying degrees. But the terror was profound and people were…well we didn’t know whether it was transferred through kissing, nobody knew if they had it already, so our neighbours and I would run up and down the stairs to each other and be like, “What do you think this spot is on my leg”, or, “I had night sweats last night”, and simultaneous to this there was a level of denial happening, you know, thinking that they would figure it out quickly. I think everyone was on a continuum of denial and fear – it probably shifted within each of us on an hourly basis.

DD: The film ends with speculation about the future of AIDS and if there will ever be a cure. How do you envisage the future?
David Weissman: Well there is certainly a lot of progress being made. One can only hope that at some point someone will find ways where it will no longer be transmissible or where it can be totally removed from the body. It’s only one of a bazillion crises in the human race – but we can now at least think, “Thank God it’s not what it once was”. Like with everything, one can only hope that progress can be made whilst the rest of the world burns! The future is not a place I spend a lot of my time. I’m an idealist, not an optimist!

'We Were Here' is on general release November 25, out on DVD on December 5. Worlds AIDS Day is on December 1, 2011 - visit worldaidsday.org for more info

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