TOPICS > Health

‘We Were Here’ Revisits San Francisco’s AIDS Epidemic of Early ’80s

June 14, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
A PBS "Independent Len" documentary, "We Were Here," recalls the largely gay Castro District of San Francisco of the 1980s and chronicles the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Spencer Michels speaks with the filmmaker David Weissman.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: remembering the early days of the AIDS epidemic and the toll it took on so many.

That’s the focus of an award-winning documentary that premieres on the PBS program “Independent Lens” tonight.

NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels talked with the filmmaker in San Francisco.

SPENCER MICHELS: San Francisco’s Castro District has become a little more heterosexual, a slightly upscale shopping street, since the days in the ’80s and ’90s when AIDS was devastating the gay male population that gathered here.

But in America today, when the disease is mostly controlled through drugs, the Castro remains a focal point of gay life, still the place gay youngsters come to find the freedom and acceptance that is sometimes hard to find at home.

I think the Castro is really still probably the gayest neighborhood in the world.

SPENCER MICHELS: It’s where David Weissman produced and directed his film, “We Were Here,” that recounts personal stories of the AIDS epidemic.

DAVID WEISSMAN, Director, “We Were Here”: It became clear to me that the people who had lived through the epidemic in those years had stopped talking about it and that people who didn’t live through that time really knew very little about the origins of the AIDS epidemic and what our community went through in the early years.

So it seemed like with the passage of time since the medications started working and the death rate started to go down, it was a good time to look back at that era and try to make sense of what actually happened, what we actually went through as a community.

SPENCER MICHELS: Within a 15-year period, nearly 20,000 people died in this city alone, after AIDS swept through the gay community starting in the early 1980s.

DAVID WEISSMAN: Even in the middle of the epidemic, I came back to San Francisco after living in Europe for a year and I expected Castro Street to have tumbleweeds blowing down it and to be a ghost town.

But one of the things that is most amazing in looking back at this is that even in the midst of terrible horror and terrible trauma, life has to go on. You don’t really have a choice.

SPENCER MICHELS: For his film, Weissman chose five people who lived through the horror to tell in a simple straightforward way what it was like.

ED WOLF, “We Were Here”: I remember looking in the window of Star Pharmacy and there was these little Polaroid photographs that this young man had made of himself. There were at least three, maybe four of them. The first one was like this, and inside, these big purple splotches.

DANIEL GOLDSTEIN, “We Were Here”: I have been around for the entire epidemic. The only thing I can liken it to is a war zone. But most of us have never lived in a war zone. But it was — you knew where the bomb was going to drop.

PAUL BONEBERG, “We Were Here”: We’re forced to deal with this unbelievable circumstance of a community that in addition to being hated and under attack is now forced alone to try to figure how to figure out how to deal with this extraordinary medical disaster.

MAN: We are not some network of people who just like to have sex. We are not ephemeral subculture that comes and dissolves and goes. This is a community that was tested in a way almost no community on Earth is ever tested.

SPENCER MICHELS: Weissman was part of the scene in those days and recalls how alone the gay community felt.

DAVID WEISSMAN: There was a tremendous amount of homophobia. And all of a sudden, this epidemic comes that is sexually transmitted. And no one came to our defense, except our own communities.

SPENCER MICHELS: You talk about discrimination and bigotry. One of the characters in your documentary said that some of the people sort of were glad that gays were dying.

DAVID WEISSMAN: Yes. I think for many people back in that era, they saw that AIDS was God’s punishment on us and they had no interest in helping us and they saw that, well, who cares if the gay people die?

SPENCER MICHELS: The gay community’s own newspapers, including the “Bay Area Reporter,” filled pages with obituaries.

Ed Wolf worked as a volunteer with AIDS patients.

ED WOLF: There was one issue they just started to run just all the photos of the people that had died in the last year. It was just page after page after page after page. And I was stunned by how many of them I knew from working on the unit. And I — you know, I realized I couldn’t — I just couldn’t — couldn’t do it anymore.

GUY CLARK, “We Were Here”: Being the flower man, I was thrown into the middle of it because a lot of people would say, guy, my friend died, and I don’t have enough money to buy flowers, and I need some help. Can you help us? They wanted to bury their friends with a lot of dignity and beauty.

SPENCER MICHELS: But there was more than just sadness. Even in the face of death in the hospital, there was community.

WOMAN: Every other Sunday, there is a party on ward 5-B. The hostess is a travel agent named Rita Berger (ph), but the nurses and the patients know her as Rita Rocket.

ED WOLF: She came on an Easter to offer to do an Easter brunch. It went so well, it turned into like she would come on Sundays.

SPENCER MICHELS: Those kind of experiences produced a sense of camaraderie that persists even today, says Weissman.

DAVID WEISSMAN: Nowadays, I will often walk down the street, and I will recognize a face from that era. And there’s a kind of a moment of acknowledgement, whether I know this person or not, that we’re survivors, that we were here before, and we’re here now.

And there’s not that many of us here, and there’s a kind of a very bittersweet feeling when one has that experience on the street.

SPENCER MICHELS: Weissman wants the new generation not to forget what happened. His film premieres on the PBS program “Independent Lens” this week.

JUDY WOODRUFF: “Independent Lens” airs on most PBS stations tonight. You can find a link to their Web site on ours. Also there, Spencer shares his own recollections from his days reporting on the AIDS crisis and the gay community in San Francisco.