David Weissman and Bill Weber’s documentary “We Were Here” operates on two levels by providing both an overarching account of the 1980s San Francisco AIDS crisis and intimate portraits of five people who lived through it. The group of subjects, comprised of four men and a woman, offer a variety of perspectives: the guilt-ridden survivor, the heartbroken lover, the helpless onlooker, the overworked helper. The film is very straightforward, consisting only of interviews interspersed with photographs and archive footage from the time period — an austere approach that lends the proceedings a somber power.
Directors Weissman and Weber recognize that the individual stories contain enough humanistic potency that excessive technical theatrics like saccharine musical cues and overwrought narration would only dilute the material, and therefore opt for a barer presentation that focuses on raw emotion. The interviewees speak about witnessing the deaths of hundreds of people, many of whom were their friends, and wear their torment so plainly that the viewer cannot help but sympathize with them. Weissman and Weber put human faces on the tragedy, thereby propelling it from the political arena commonly associated with gay rights in today’s America to the realm of the universal.
While Weissman and Weber’s unadorned style of storytelling mostly works, the resulting lack of a driving narrative force admittedly contributes to an unrefined structure that causes “We Were Here” to drag in the middle. Outside of a marked tonal shift in which the interviewees transition from discussing the initial liberating feeling of being part of the San Francisco gay community to the devastation of the AIDS crisis, the film lacks a clear arc. As a result, the directors are free to belabor certain points, such as the unbelievably high death toll of the epidemic (symbolized by countless pictures of obituaries) and the gruesome effects of AIDS on the human body. Thus, even though “We Were Here” is poignant in an episodic sort of way, it never attains the transcendence that a less disjointed construction would have afforded.
Nonetheless, that the film packs an emotional wallop is an uncommon feat for an American documentary. The viewer gains an intimate understanding of what living through such a desperately turbulent social climate was like. “We Were Here” presents a complete picture of the American gay community in this specific time and place — its highs, staggering lows, and immense fortitude.