|Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report|
San Francisco-based filmmaker David Weissman directed "We Were Here" a film about the impact of the AIDS crisis in that city.
By Andrew W. Griffin
Red Dirt Report, editor
Posted: October 3, 2012
OKLAHOMA CITY – It’s been more than 30 years that the city of San Francisco, California, home to a large gay population, first began to realize that a horrible epidemic was sweeping through their community.
Of course it was AIDS and thousands upon thousands of people would be directly or indirectly affected by this horrific disease through the Reagan era and beyond. There was a lot of misinformation about AIDS in the early years, while it also resulted in increased unity in the gay community and people came together in a compassionate way. This, as more than 15,000 people died in San Francisco from the disease before it was controlled to a degree in the middle of the 1990’s.
Filmmaker David Weissman, who was in Oklahoma City this week in advance of a screening of We Were Here: The AIDS Years in San Francisco at the Pegasus Theater at the University of Central Oklahoma, visited the offices of the LGBT advocacy organization, Cimarron Alliance, talking to executive director Scott Hamilton for a podcast. Weissman also took time to speak to Red Dirt Report during his visit.
Born in 1954 in southern California, Weissman, a gay man, moved to San Francisco in 1976 and became very involved in politics in that historically-liberal city-by-the-bay.
He knew nationally-known gay-rights activist Cleve Jones (founder of the AIDS Memorial Quilt) and through Jones met Harvey Milk, the outspoken gay-rights activist who would become a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1978, only to be later assassinated by fellow Supervisor, the homophobic Dan White, now known as “the most hated man in San Francisco’s history.”
Asked about his memories of Milk, Weissman said he would see him on occasion at Castro Camera, Milk's camera shop, and around the area. As for White's motives in killing Milk, Weissman says there was no conspiracy. White was simply homophobic and part of the old guard and threatened by the new generation taking control of San Francisco politics. White would later die in 1985.
And Milk's assassination - just as the gay liberation movement was really taking off - took place just a few years before AIDS erupted in cities like San Francisco, New York, Miami and elsewhere.
Asked what prompted him to film We Were Here, Weissman said it was because a boyfriend of his, who was much younger, was curious about what happened in the 1970’s and 1980’s in San Francisco and wanted to know what it was like living through the AIDS years.
“I like it that the suggestion came from someone of the younger generation,” Weissman said.
So, with fellow filmmaker Bill Weber, this deeply moving documentary, which Red Dirt Report viewed recently, takes viewers on a journey back in time, while interviewing five people in the present, people who lived through those years. The pain and the sorrow. The weathering of the storm, as it were.
One particularly powerful scene in We Were Here is that of the faces – the faces of those who died and were featured in the local gay newspapers. The faces would fill page after page. It is a shocking scene and illustrative of how devastating AIDS was on the population at that time.
Weissman’s first documentary project was The Cockettes, a 2002 documentary film about San Francisco’s legendary theatre troupe of hippies and drag queens who performed back in the early 1970’s.
Weissman points to several LGBT-rights documentary films as groundbreaking, including: Before Stonewall (1984); The Times of Harvey Milk (1984); Silverlake Life: The View from Here (1993); and The Celluloid Closet (1995).
And now, during his first visit to Oklahoma, Weissman is getting the chance to meet LGBT activists here and hear their stories and challenges.
“A lot of them come from small-town Oklahoma,” he said of the local activists.
And while he admits to being “insulated” in a gay-friendly city like San Francisco, he has been “pleasantly surprised” by how warmly he has been greeted since arriving in the past day or so.
And while the Heartland has its challenges when it comes to full acceptance of gays and lesbians, Weissman said that since he arrived in San Francisco in the mid-1970’s, “it is a different world.”
But, not without its challenges. Hate crimes can happen anywhere, he said.
And regarding the AIDS plague, he noted, in an ironic twist, that the increased visibility of the gay community largely came about due to the AIDS crisis and with thousands of mothers and fathers learning that their son – who was revealed to be gay – was dying of the disease. It was no longer hidden after AIDS.
And over the years, the gay community gained respect, while increasing its political power.
“That would not have happened in quite the same way had (the AIDS crisis) not happened,” Weissman said, adding that in the 1980’s and 1990’s, “more people came out of the closet” and it was hard to ignore the fact that a friend or family member was gay.
Accompanying Weissman to Oklahoma City for the screening of We Were Here were Ed Wolf and San Francisco General Hospital nurse Eileen Glutzer.
Wolf, a gay man who is also a counselor in San Francisco for those facing HIV, agreed to appear in We Were Here when he was approached by Weissman, a friend he has known since the mid-1990’s. The others offering personal stories in We Were Here besides Wolf and Glutzer included Paul Boneberg, Guy Clark and Daniel Goldstein.
“He talked to me about doing a documentary and I said ‘sure,’” said Wolf, who had worked in the AIDS ward at San Francisco General Hospital at the height of the AIDS pandemic and witnessed numerous men succumb to the disease, which in the early 1980’s was known as the mysterious “gay cancer.”
This was Wolf and Glutzer’s first visit to Oklahoma. Glutzer said the extent of her knowledge on the state was via the musical Oklahoma!, while Wolf said he was very impressed with the UCO student activists with SAFE (Student Alliance for Equality).
And Nurse Glutzer told Red Dirt Report that when she recently attended the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, she was wearing a costume and two Israeli men approached her and asked her if she had appeared in a documentary. They had seen We Were Here back in Israel.
“Things like that happen,” Glutzer said. “It just made my day. It made me feel so good.”
Weissman, meanwhile, said We Were Here has been warmly received around the country. It has been screened at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah and elsewhere. It has won the Jury Award at the 2011 Newport Beach Film Festival and was nominated for the 2012 Independent Spirit and GLADD Media awards and was shortlisted for the Academy Award in the best documentary category.
“Everyone, at some time in their life, will be faced with an unexpected crisis,” Weissman said, adding that the gay community in San Francisco and beyond faced the challenges of AIDS head on and that We Were Here is a tribute to that tenacity and love.
After the 7 p.m. screening of We Were Here at UCO’s Pegasus Theater, Weissman, Glutzer and Wolf will participate in a panel discussion about the film and the legacy of AIDS - those who lived and those who died - in San Francisco.
As UCO Prof. Susan Spencer told the UCO campus paper of We Were Here: “It was one of the most moving films I’ve ever seen. We screened the film last year and the students were so impressed we decided, with student encouragement, to show it again this fall.”
The screening of We Were Here is free and open to the public. To learn more, contact Susan Spencer at 405-974-5892 or email here at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We Were Here has earned a remarkable 100 percent “Tomatometer” reading at the influential film-review website RottenTomatoes.com.
Copyright 2012 Red Dirt Report