The plague years: We Were Here

A shattering portrait of lives ravaged by the AIDS epidemic during a period when federal dollars were short and misguided fears long, the documentary We Were Here clarifies for the young (i.e. anyone like me born after, say, 1970) how the plague decimated the San Francisco gay male population (more than 15,000 deaths by the early nineties). Photos show how alarmingly healthy young men at the apex of their beauty and confidence as disco waned transformed into emaciated wraiths, their bodies speckled with Kaposi’s sarcoma, their flesh hanging off their bones. Former dancer Guy Clark, one of the four principles, relates how his first boyfriend succumbed to an early miracle cure as part of a research project; then, almost an hour later, we learn that Clark’s second boyfriend also died more than ten years later. Directors David Weissman and Bill Weber are like that; far from being didactic or leaden, the chronological narrative creates a sense of lives lost, love blooming among the ruins, fleeting hope dissipating. None of these people are heroes: death was such a part of their lives that pieties didn’t interest them. This is especially true of Eileen Glutzer, a clear-eyed and unsentimental nurse who was often the first and last person whom patients saw (they’d lost touch with their relatives years ago or died so quickly there was no time to notify the living). Less true, though, of Ed Wolf, a crypto-bear who admits sheepishly, “I was terrible at anonymous sex” but whose services as a caregiver demand the best of his capacious warmth. We Were Here’s lesson, if it offers one, comes in classic show-not-tell format: if you worry whether anyone will remember you when you die, it’s because you haven’t shown anyone you know how to live.

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