Sundance film review: documentary "We Were Here"

Thu Jan 27, 2011 4:04pm EST

PARK CITY, Utah (Hollywood Reporter) - By now many documentaries and even a few dramatic features have explored the AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s. But "We Were Here," competing in the U.S. documentary section at Sundance, brings a rewardingly fresh and personal perspective to the subject. Director David Weissman looks at the impact of the epidemic on the gay community in San Francisco, and instead of dwelling on the thousands of deaths, he focuses on five people who survived and share their reminiscences of the plague years. The film will find appreciative audiences on television and maybe even in some limited theatrical runs.

The five witnesses are shrewdly selected to represent a variety of experiences. Guy Clark is a black man who came to San Francisco as a dancer and ended up running a flower shop in the Castro district that provided flowers for far too many funerals. Paul Boneberg was the most politically active of the five. Eileen Glutzer was a nurse with many gay friends who helped to administer clinical trials of several AIDS drugs. Daniel Goldstein is an HIV-positive artist who lost two lovers to AIDS. Ed Wolf remained healthy because, as he says, "I was terrible at anonymous sex," but he worked as a counselor to many dying men.

These five describe San Francisco during the heady days of the 70s, when Harvey Milk energized the gay community, and they recall the first warnings of the disease that would change all of their lives. Telling photographs and news footage from the era supplement their reminiscences, but the heart of the film is in the personal testaments of these individuals. Weissman earned their trust so that they are able to express emotion without any self-consciousness.

While the tears they shed will be shared by audiences watching the movie, this is a rare AIDS movie that is affirmative rather than depressing. That is because of the lessons the survivors gleaned from these dark days. They recall the spirit of caring and camaraderie that transformed the gay community in San Francisco and also awakened the compassion of many straight Americans who went through a sea change in their attitudes toward homosexuality. The film is not airbrushed. Many of the memories are stark, such as Eileen's recollection of removing the eyes of dead patients in order to gain an understanding of a mysterious virus that caused blindness in a number of AIDS victims. Despite the painful memories they share, their honesty and clear-eyed intelligence help to provide a sense of healing.

(Editing by Zorianna Kit)