New San Francisco AIDS doc We Were Here is an act of emotional archeology, digging up often astonishing tidbits about life during the onset of the epidemic
FILM Amid the worshipful bromides that attended the 100th birthday of zombie Ronald Reagan on Feb. 6, gay blogger Joe.My.God. helped bring back to light a transcript of a 1982 press briefing Q&A session between Reagan administration spokesman Larry Speakes and journalist Lester Kinsolving. It's the first known time that AIDS was brought up at the White House.
Lester Kinsolving: Larry, does the president have any reaction to the announcement — the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?
SPEAKES: What's AIDS?
LK: Over a third of them have died. It's known as "gay plague." (Laughter.) No, it is. I mean it's a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that get this have died. And I wondered if the president is aware of it?
SPEAKES: I don't have it. Do you? (Laughter.)
LK No, I don't ...
SPEAKES: How do you know? (Laughter.)
LK: In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke?
The answer, as the briefing spiraled into hysterics, was yes. It's long been a source of bitterness that Reagan didn't publicly refer to AIDS until 1987, after the disease had officially killed 20,849 Americans, been identified in 113 countries, and started to be "normalized" by the infection of young white children and closeted Hollywood superstars. But it was the laughter as gays lay dying that brought an angry population together, and that still rings in the ears of those who survived.
Reagan isn't mentioned in David Weissman's important and moving new documentary about San Francisco's early response to the AIDS epidemic, We Were Here — although his communications director Pat Buchanan and Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell get split-second references, as does the heinous Proposition 64, the heroically defeated 1986 California ballot measure that could have led the way to quarantining gays. We Were Here isn't a political polemic about the lack of governmental support that greeted the onset of the disease. Nor is the film a kind of cinematic And the Band Played On, exhaustively laying out all the historical and medical minutiae of HIV's dawn. (See PBS Frontline's engrossing 2006 The Age of AIDS for that.) There's no mention of crystal meth, the Internet, the HIV denialist movement, protease inhibitors, depression, or survivor guilt. ACT-UP and the AIDS quilt are discussed only briefly. And you'll find virtually nothing about the infected world outside the United States or the ongoing fight against the disease.
A satisfying 90-minute documentary couldn't possibly cover all the aspects of AIDS, of course, even the local ones. Instead, Weissman's film, codirected with Bill Weber and full of often astonishing tidbits, concentrates mostly on AIDS in the 1980s and tells a more personal and, in its way, more controversial story. What happened in San Francisco when gay people started mysteriously wasting away? And how did the epidemic change the people who lived through it?