The Stuff of 2011: The Most Powerful Documentary We Saw All Year

We Were Here has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes; it's no mistake. The documentary about the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco during the '80s and early '90s is one of the most devastating and inspiring movies we've seen. Like, ever.

We caught it at Hot Docs this year, and since we liked it so much, we're going to pretty much just repeat what we said at the time

"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... 

"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 to help people."


You'll find the rest of our "Stuff of 2011" posts here. If there's something you enjoyed this year that you'd like to share, write something about it and email it to us at by December 21. We'll post some of our favourites.

We Were Here was chosen 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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