We Were Here

We Were Here

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

If you were around in the Eighties, you'll remember the headlines. Talk of a gay plague, demands that sufferers be isolated "on an island", horror at the evil bisexuals who might transmit the disease to clean-living straight people. "Don't die of ignorance" blared the government adverts, whilst some of us feared we might die of other people's.

But that was the wider world. Nowhere was it as hard as in San Francisco, the ground zero of HIV, where the gay community lost more than 15,000 of its members. People's friends, lovers, brothers, cousins, sons. This documentary is, remarkably, the first to go back to that community, to speak to those few survivors who can say: "We were here."

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It might sound like a gruelling journey and it is. There's no easy way to talk about all that pain. Interviewees struggle not to break up as they recall the things they witnessed, even at this distance. But what also emerges here is the warmth of the community that sustained them, the wonderful sense of friendship and support despite it all. There's pride that they didn't fall to pieces - not in their personal lives and not in the hospitals and charities where their efforts were desperately needed. There's pride that they didn't give in to the bigots and the attempts to blame them for what was happening, that they hung onto their dream of a more liberal world.

More than anything else, this resembles a war documentary. The camaraderie, the grief at massive loss, the sense of shock still tangible today, and quiet struggles with survivors' guilt. There is also, cautiously understated, an exuberant joy at still being alive, with all the possibilities and hope that brings. We Were Here is never mawkish or unduly sentimental, nor is it distant and dry. It's a thoughtful, conversational approach to an extraordinary history.

Today, one can expect to live a lot longer with HIV and overall transmission rates are going down. But with rates of transmission between men once again on the rise in the UK, this is a timely film. It comes across as a warning from those who have witnessed disaster once, and also as a source of strength and inspiration for those suffering with illness today.

Reviewed on: 30 Nov 2011
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A documentary charting the experiences of people caught up in the first major outbreak of AIDS in San Francisco.
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