Review: We Were Here (2011)

We Were Here


David Weissman (Bill Weber, co-director)
David Weissman
90 min.
Ed Wolf, Paul Boneberg, Daniel Goldstein, Guy Clark, Eileen Glutzer
MPAA Rating
Not Rated
Picking up a documentary requires one thing: an interest in the subject matter. If your interest isn’t there, no matter how entertaining, evocative or informative the film is, you aren’t likely to come out with more than a cursory understanding and certainly won’t recommend it to others. With We Were Here, I was lucky enough to find the subject matter most fascinating even if the presentation wasn’t as impressive as it could have been.

San Francisco in the 1960’s and 1970’s was a hotbed of growth. Hundreds of gay men and women from around the country sought a place to call their own and found it in the queer districts of Castro and surrounding areas. The documentary begins in this period, with four woman and one man who arrived there and experienced the evolution first hand. They recount the excitement and thrill of finding a community that supported them, even if it eventually fractured into cliques of varying interests who supported the whole but isolated themselves like most cultural groups.

After the assassination of Harvey Milk, the documentary shifts its focus to the emergence of the Gay Cancer plague that would one day be called AIDS. With great humility and sorrow, the film’s five interview subjects, Ed Wolf, Paul Boneberg, Daniel Goldstein, Guy Clark and Eileen Glutzer, give the audience their perspective of a difficult, destructive and yet galvanizing period in gay rights and gay issues history from those early days in San Francisco through the more broad acceptance of AIDS patience, treatments and eventual decline, but not eradication, of one of the most potential viral threats since the Bubonic Plague.

Hearing about the men and women they loved and lost, their experiences helping each other and themselves during that era is a simultaneously frightening and uplifting. History teachers and experts who talk about this period lack gravitas when they have little first-hand experience. These are gay men and women who were in the heart of the community, lived through the hospital cofinements, withering communities and personal tragedies that defined it. You can’t get a more importnt or informative viewpoint than what you have here.

Documentaries are as varied as their big screen fiction counterparts. You have simple and complex stories told either simply or entertainingly. The most exciting and successful productions are typically the ones that blend complex stories with a fervent passion like Bowling for Columbine while films like Anne Frank Remembered feature important stories that are conveyed simply, almost mechanically. There is a happy medium between these extremes where films like We Were Here exist.

Documentarian David Weissman takes an important and informative story and tells it simply. There are few flourishes to be found, which doesn’t detract from the affair, but may make it more challenging for those who aren’t as interested in the subject matter to enjoy. That’s one of the reason the modern stylists like Michael Moore, Errol Morris and Alex Gibney are so successful. They don’t just give you information you should know, they do so in a way that engages and drives its audience, either positively or negatively. Weissman’s approach is no less valid or vital and if you have an interest in this story, I heartily recommend you pick it up as soon as you can. But when you sit down to watch it, don’t wonder where all the quick cuts, far-reaching ideas and passionate debate are, you won’t find them. There is no debate here, just remembrances and observations.

We Were Here gives its interviewees ample time to explore the complex ideological and emotional issues at play from the 1960’s through the early 1990’s in the Castro district of San Francisco. Each gives the audience a unique perspective that sticks with you long after the final image fades.
Review Written
November 10, 2011

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