Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Review: We Were Here (2011)

In 1990, Therese Frare took a photograph that would change the scope of public opinion and understanding regarding AIDS. Her subject was David Kirby - surrounded by loved ones and about to take the final painful breaths of his life. His would become one of over 100,000 AIDS deaths in the United States between 1981 and 1990 (CDC) – a statistic that is more than astonishing. Frare's photograph would become one of TIME Magazine's many iconic images, allowing (and perhaps forcing) the public to enter into the most intimate of settings. Once you see the image, things change. At least they definitely should. It's been 30 years since the official recognition of AIDS, and while the number of AIDS-related deaths is nowhere near its apex, it is still estimated that over 1 million people are HIV+ in the United States. Generally, however, awareness and compassion may have plateaued. As South Park mentioned in a 2008 episode, it's not longer hip to care about AIDS (having been replaced by a cancer fad). Without going into everything they are satirizing, there does seem to be some truth in what they were saying. In 2009, there were still over 40,000 new HIV diagnoses (AVERT). We are overdue for a new Frare/Kirby. No, not to make AIDS awareness hip, but to expose ourselves to new and different depths of this horrible disease and its effects. If such a project is done appropriately, we may be afforded an amazing chance for self-reflection, empathy, and perhaps something even larger. With WE WERE HERE, filmmakers David Weissman and Bill Weber may have created just such a project.

 We Were Here features interviews with a number of people who faced AIDS on the ground level: 1980s San Francisco. With powerful emotion and stark honesty, each subject recounts stories of joy and heartbreaking pain regarding acquaintances, friends, family, and lovers. The film also juxtaposes pictures and footage of the extremely happy and free Harvey Milk days with those of the confusion during the initial outbreak and the hopelessness many felt during the apex of deaths. The images of those men's eyes while they were in the hospital, knowing that they had this disease and the kind of death they should expect  – the extreme fear and searching for even the slightest measure hope those eyes conveyed – I will never forget.

The documentary's style is appropriately minimal. There isn't much by way of fancy credit sequences or editing flourishes. Part of the film's strength is its reliance on the weight of its content. And weight it has in spades. That being said, there are a number of comedic moments, as you might expect from people who have survived such a high measure of tragedy. How else could you remain sane throughout it all than with a sense of humor? In one scene, Ed Wolf demonstrates his inability to effectively give the “come hither” look on command. Such moments of joy and levity go a long way in grounding the movie. Although the movie's tone is very serious, its point is not purely to create sadness or guilt in the audience. It is not satisfied to lament a depressing and ignored period in American history. Rather, it is very hopeful. Guy Clark recalls seeing a patron of his business go from being a young cyclist to a shell of a person in a wheelchair, and then, somehow, emerging as a survivor, back on his bicycle. When Daniel Goldstein recounts his amazing story of perseverance (and it is pretty amazing) and how he reached what seemed to be the logical choice of suicide, he adamantly proclaims his choice for life. We Were Here painfully shows us where we've come from in this country with AIDS, in order to proudly promote the importance of community and remind us, with hope, that we have more work to do.

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