As has been customary for some time now, queers of all stripes lined up outside Cinema 21–and around the block–for opening night of Portland’s Queer Film Festival.
Anticipation is always high opening night–and is usually centered around some glitzy, glamorous first-night feature. Last year we lined up for Howl, starring ever-dreamy James Franco. In 2009, we braved autumn drizzle to see hometown hero Daniel Robinson shine in The Big Gay Musical. This past Friday, half the city (well, it seemed like it) was on hand to see what has been described as the must-see queer film of the year,We Were Here, better described as the must-see film of the decade. Really.
We Were Here, directed by David Weissman, centers around a small group of people living in San Francisco who endured and survived HIV/AIDS during the epidemic’s earliest years, when it was a nameless plague wreaking havoc on the city’s gay community. Weissman wisely endears his narrators to his audience from the opening scenes–the dancer-turned florist, the gay who was “terrible at anonymous sex”–the latter accompanied by a very sweet reenactment of come-hither eyes. The five–Guy Clark, Ed Wolf, Daniel Goldstein, Eileen Glutzer, and Paul Boneberg–don’t shy away from humor and self-deprecation while they navigate terribly emotional, painful waters.
Then (in 1981), HIV/AIDS infected about half of the city’s gay male population, killing thousands upon thousands of otherwise healthy young men. People flailed–without support and without information. They dealt with an apathetic government and bigoted media coverage. Ever-beautiful “We Were Here” offers a timeline–a chronology through the eyes of five people who survived it, who watched countless friends and lovers die. The five also witnessed (and endured) painful, deadly drug trials, unthinkable civil rights violations and discrimination, and the potential unraveling of the community they built and loved.
The film isn’t easy to watch. When it isn’t scene after scene of grievous storytelling, it’s a barrage of before-and-after pictures of healthy, happy (and in most cases, young) men reduced to little more than wasting skeletons, riddled with pain, covered in lesions. The personal narratives–that of a lover who died on the way to a hospital; the mother who lost each of her sons to AIDS; the father who was more upset over his son being “faggot” than being dead; the nurse who watched much-loved patients donate their eyes to research–simultaneously evoke mourning and inspiration. But no matter how intensely personal this material gets, Here is never for a moment mired in self-pity–or anything remotely resembling it. This is a movie about grace, love, and perseverance.
And that’s what this movie has in spades–love. As heartbreaking as it is to watch the relentless death and destruction, the movie provides equal parts hope and inspiration as a community–gay men and lesbians alike–comes together during a tragedy to support, nurture, and love one another. We Were Here depicts a community–a family–not buckling under the pressure of insipid right-wing aggression, stereotypes, bigotry–and death. Each of the five storytellers, both haunted and empowered by their experiences, coalesce in equal time and perfect measure–the story of a sea of selflessness in the most horrific of times. And that’s what’s most beautiful about this film.
We Were Here also broaches a subject our community seems afraid to really talk about–the onset of the AIDS epidemic–while shining light on a very real generational gap that exists. Here honors and remembers a very difficult past while helping make a way for a more open, respectful future; it shows how we can and do support and take care of one another in the face of systematic apathy and oppression; it shows how we can share our experiences with one another–it is without a doubt one of the most important movies you’ll ever see. And even as I type that, I realize words fail me–you can’t read about We Were Here, you must experience it.