When We Were Here … Documentary Worth Watching

I recently watched When We Were Here, which is a documentary available on Netflix that chronciles the experience of the AIDS crisis in San Francisco in the early 1980s. It was touching, informative and interesting. There were many things that I kinda-sorta-knew about that time period but this film really tied them all together and gave a clearer picture of what it was like to live through that time.

Basics of the Film

The film interviews five people. They come from various backgrounds and experiences … some were very involved in the health politics of the crisis and others were not … but what they have in common is that they all lived through the AIDS crisis in the Castro in the 1980’s and were intimately touched by the experience in one way or another.

It Was the Numbers that Shocked Me

The film reveals many touching stories and details that could wrench your heart out but for some reason it was the numbers and statitsics revealed in the movie that really got my attention. Some of the things I learned from the film:

  • It is believed that AIDS came to San Francisco around 1976 but there wasn’t an AIDS test until about five years later. By the time there was a test, approximately 50% of the gay men in San Francisco tested positive.
  • In the ~10 year time span between the first real awareness of AIDS and the time when real treatment became available more than 15,000 people in San Francisco (mostly gay men, many living in the small Castro neighborhood) died from the disease.

The film also has these really poignant images where it shows the obituaries of person after person after person. The Bay Area Reporter would just have pages of pages of headshots of those who were killed by the disease. While this is an image, it’s also about the numbers because of the way it’s laid out.

Things I Knew But Saw a Different Way

For some reason I know a lot of secondhand information about this period of time even though I never set out to learn about it. Even before moving here I’d read a number of memoirs/ anthologies of stories from that time. And maybe it’s just part of growing up as a teen in the 90’s that we learned about AIDS. Once I moved here I met a lot of people who had lived through it. One of the things that I’ve heard again and again from people is that during the early days they had friends dying literally every week. This is reiterated again in the film – one man in particular talks about losing his partner and then his best friend in a two week span. But for some reason I had never really thought about exactly what this meant until I watched the movie. I can’t imagine if all of the friends I have here in the city were dead next year. I just can’t even begin to imagine what that would be like and this was happening to so many people here at this time. I had heard people compare it to going through a war, a reference also made in the film, and after watching the documentary I kind of understand why they would say that.

Another thing I knew but really understood better after watching the film was that the community here really had to come together around this crisis. For a long time AIDS was considered a “gay disease” and this didn’t just bring stigma but also a host of problems related to that stigma. For one thing, the larger medical and political community wasn’t necessarily in a rush to solve a problem that they didn’t see as being related to them. People were dying these horrific deaths that had no cure and it was up to those same people to come together to find a cure because no one else was doing it. A related point made in the film was that it was during this time that the lesbian and gay communities really began to come together for the first time in a big way in part because with so many gay men dying around them the lesbian community stepped up and helped care for these guys.

Of course, things weren’t just hunky dory … even while the community came together there was obviously some dissent between people with differing beliefs. One example that the film brings up is that once the larger world decided to respond to the AIDS crisis they did some things that posed a risk to civil rights. This was easily a time when a backlash could occur against gay rights. So one of the things they wanted to do was shut down all of the bathhouses, which they saw as a breeding ground for the disease. Some members of the gay community were fine with this and others felt like this was a civil rights issue. So the community had to find ways to come together and fight for rights related to AIDS, health care, etc. even though there were aspects of the developing situation that not all members of the community agreed upon. (Of course, this was the case in many different areas of civil rights, not just around the AIDS crisis … such as in issues where women had to find their place in a larger civil rights movement and then minority women had to figure out their place in all of that … but it was intensified by the fact that it was happening around this huge health crisis.

Some Random Fun Facts

I am one of those San Franciscans who always gets a little thrill when I see my city in movies of any kind. And I always like learning new facts that are more “insider information”. So there were random things in this film that I liked for that. For example, I learned that Under One Roof was almost named AIDSmart. Under One Roof is an organization that sells retail items with proceeds going to AIDS organizations. I know about it (and have shopped there during the holiday season) because a friend volunteers there. So it’s one of those local things that I now know this random tidbit about that I didn’t know before.


Conclusion: This is a film that tells some really great personal stories while sharing great educational information about the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Totally worth a watch.

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  1. […] I’ve seen a couple of good documentaries lately about HIV/ AIDS. I already told you about When We Were Here, which I definitely recommend. The other one I saw recently was called How to Survive a Plague and […]