Hot Docs 2011: We Were Here

Fuuuck. I just got home from seeing We Were Here and I'm kind of a mess. I can't imagine I'll see a more emotionally powerful film at this week's festival — or probably anywhere else this year. It tells the story — through archival footage and interviews with five people who were there — of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco during the '80s and early '90s.

It is devastating. We don't seem to have much of a cultural memory for the sheer enormity of what happened, so if you weren't involved yourself, or are too young to remember, it comes as a bit of a shock. The film opens in the late '70s, just as gay rights activist Harvey Milk is assassinated. HIV is already there, though no one realizes yet. Guy, an immensely charming flower salesman on the Castro, remembers the first time he saw polaroids of red welts posted in the window of a pharmacy, warning of a mysterious "gay cancer". By then it was the very early '80s and 20% of the gay men in the community were already infected. Soon, that number would be up to 50%. By 1994, 1500 people in the city were dying of AIDS every year. Daniel, another of the film's subjects tells the story of how he and his partner both found out they had tested positive at the same time. They entered a study for experimental treatment and were both forced to pull out when the side effects of the drugs proved to be too strong. Within a few short months, Daniel's partner had died, along with every single other one of the 80 people in the study. A few days earlier another of Daniel's close friends had passed away. Two weeks after that, his best friend was gone, too. Years later, he'd lose a second partner. "It was an avalanche," he says. And as We Were Here makes clear, his story was a common one. More than once the Castro is compared to a war zone.

But as devastating as it is, the story is also an inspiring one. The gay community was essentially left to fend for themselves, abandoned by the Reagan administration and ostracized in a nation where — as Tom Brokaw reports in one clip — half of all Americans thought HIV victims should be quarantined and a full 15% thought they should forcibly tattooed. (A statistic that provoked an audible gasp from the audience at my screening.) Left to their own devices, the community learned how to build the outreach groups, advocacy organizations, and health care support they needed. With their friends and families dying all around them — and while many of them were sick themselves — they built much of the infrastructure from the ground up and were eventually able to turn back the tide. It's an incredibly powerful and valuable lesson — particularly at a time and place when our governments are more interested in finding ways to cut services than help people.

We Were Here will be playing in Toronto again later this month as part of the Inside Out festival and should be hitting theatres in September.

Photo: Still from We Were Here

You'll find all of our Hot Docs coverage here.

Posted by Adam Bunch, the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at


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