Nominated for Sundance and the BFI London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival 2011, i-D talk to director David Weissman about his powerful documentary film We Were Here.
It’s an incredible thing when a film changes the way you think forever. But how do you go about documenting the heavy subject matter of the arrival and impact of AIDS in America? The disaster which first hit the San Francisco gay community during the late 1970s, is documented in the film through the voices of five individuals who lived through the time, sharing deeply personal accounts. The characters’ experiences are varied, offering unique perspectives that carve out a moving, everlasting image as to what it was like during this period of modern history. But the film is by no means dark. What unravels is a story about hope, compassion and love. Weissman (interviewed here) has produced a masterpiece, that leaves audiences with an inspirational after taste.
You were a political activist in San Francisco during the epidemic. Why have you now decided to document these events that you lived through? The answer to that has evolved over time. I don’t think that I ever anticipated doing a film like this. After doing The Cockettes, I wasn’t that excited about doing another documentary at all but the idea for this was suggested by a younger boyfriend of mine, who had heard me talk about my experiences during those years. He brought it up and said why don’t you make a movie about it and it very quickly became clear to me that it was something that needed to be done. I think part of it is that it is the sort of thing where a lot of time needed to pass for people to catch their breath and to try and find some degree of normalcy.
The people in the film have very unique stories from varied perspectives. How did you find them? There wasn’t any kind of organised process. The people who wound up in the film were people I knew a little and who I ran into at some particular point, it was very intuitive. I keep saying it was a combination of chance encounter and intuition that I wound up with these five people.
Did you know the people in the film at the time that it documents? No. I met Ed in the mid 90s doing some HIV prevention work. I know Eileen through mutual friends. Daniel is someone I have known for a long time but we never really hung out socially. Guy is someone, like many people, I have sat at the second chair at his flower stand, over many years because that is just what you do if you are walking past Guy’s flower stand, and you have time you sit and talk to him. Because I didn’t really know how I would go about telling such an epic history, even limiting it to San Francisco. The story is so enormous and people will say the film is simple or conventional when it’s really not, it tells an enormous, enormous story from a very small number of voices and in a way that was a very radical choice. But I knew that for me as a film maker what was most important was to capture the human experience of the time, more than to capture a set of facts, it was more about capturing what we as individuals and a community experienced when this completely unimaginable thing descended upon us.
From all the people in the film, whose story or specific experiences did you feel was vital to document or was it a collective build up of the overall picture? I think the movie completely parallels my time in San Francisco. I mean I got there in 76’, I experienced the whole thing in a very complex way and I think there was a larger sense of time and place and circumstance that I wanted to capture, because as a filmmaker there are stories that people will tell that will be incredibly useful for the film. But I don’t think I sort them out. The interviews were less subject-object interviews, they were shared therapeutic sessions with people who had a shared history. It was an unusual process and I don’t think anyone who didn’t live through it could have made a similar type of movie. The story that probably stands out the most – and again this is more about the film making aspect of it rather than the contents specifically – is the story that Guy tells. How he illustrates the changing circumstances of the epidemic in the 90s.
Do you feel you have accurately captured the essence of the time? I have always seen the movie as an opening of an enormous and long dialogue rather than anything that ends any discussion. I feel like the film is an entry way for other people to tell their own stories and share their history. In terms of doing that, I feel very good about it. I feel like it gives an overview that is intimate but broad. But every time after the movie and every time I see someone on the street, more stories about pieces that the movie doesn’t address come out and I love that. I love that there are other movies being made about ACT UP in New York and particular activists, there are so many pieces to this history.
What thoughts do you want people to be left with from seeing the film? It is so individual. I think that people have such varied backgrounds and such varied relationships to the particular stories, that I think that my answer to that would differ from individual to individual. The movie was meant to tell an inspirational story as much as it was to capture the horror of those years. I don’t think I could have made it without the feeling that it could be inspirational. The most wonderful thing for me is how many people have said that they watched it with trepidation but came out of it feeling really good. The two things that I knew from the very beginning and that I wanted to include in the movie were one, the series of nude self portraits done by made friend John Davis, shortly before he died. They really are horrifying but so exquisitely beautiful and so filled with courage and ferocity and elegance and fearlessness, and so metaphorically, those photographs represented what I really wanted to say. To talk about that juxtaposition of horror and beauty that can exist simultaneously, not always by any means, but they can in ways that we do not always expect. And the other thing that I knew I wanted to include was Rita Rocket, the tap dancer. To me she is such an example of the way that somebody in San Francisco with an incredible party spirit, I mean she was such wild girl, but became the Florence Nightingale of the AIDS epidemic.
We Were Here is released 25th November in UK cinemas.
Text: Paris Bennett