It would have been understandable had “We Were Here” veered into the maudlin. The documentary, which recounts how San Francisco’s gay community united in the 1980s to combat the AIDS epidemic, has its share of gut-wrenching stories. But the film is admirably no-frills.
It is also thoroughly inspiring. Directors David Weissman and Bill Weber illustrate AIDS’ devastating impact on San Francisco by narrowing the focus to a handful of interview subjects.
The interviewees — gay-rights activist Paul Boneberg, florist Guy Clark, nurse Eileen Glutzer, artist Daniel Goldstein and counselor Ed Wolf — depict how the city spiraled from a beacon of sexual freedom to a community mired in death.
Wolf recalls first learning about AIDS when he saw photographs posted on a drugstore window. The pictures showed a man wasting away and covered in mysterious lesions.
“Watch out, guys,” read a caption under the photos. “There’s something out there.”
But “We Were Here” is not a tale of defeat. With roughly half of San Francisco’s gay population impacted by AIDS, the tight-knit community joined forces and did what needed to be done for those infected. With minimal use of archival footage or photos, the documentary gives its interviewees room to bear witness.
Their stories are undeniably heartbreaking, but also reveal strength and — at the risk of invoking what might be the overused word of this decade — resilience.