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

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.

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  • 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. News Hour correspondent Spencer Michel's talk with a 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.

  • David Weissman, Director:

    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:

    It became clear to me that the people who had lived through the epidemic in those years had stopped talking about it, and the people who didn't live through the 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 medication started working and the death rates 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 20000 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's most amazing and 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 that horror to tell in a simple, straightforward way what it was like.

  • Ed Wolf:

    I remember looking in the window of Star Pharmacy, and there were 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:

    I've 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, as you never knew where the bomb was going to drop.

  • Paul Boneberg:

    Were 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 out how to deal with this extraordinary medical disaster. We are not some network of people who just like to have sex. We are not some ephemeral subculture that comes in, dissolves and goes. This is a community that was tested in a way almost no community on Earth was 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 that some of the people sort of was glad that gays were dying.

  • David Weissman:

    Yeah, I think for many people back in that era, they saw that AIDS was God's punishment on us, and they had no 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 decided 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:

    Then 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.

  • Speaker:

    Every other Sunday there was a party on ward 5B. The hostess is a travel agent named Rita Berger, 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 kinds of experiences produced a sense of camaraderie that persists even today, says Weissman.

  • David Weissman:

    Nowadays, I'll often walk down the street and I'll recognize the face from that era. And there's a kind of a moment of acknowledgment, 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 in the PBS program Independent Lens this week.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Independent Lens airs on most PBS stations tonight, you can find a link to their website on ours. Also there Spencer shares his own recollections from his days reporting on the AIDS crisis and the gay community in San Francisco.