April 7, 2011 | by David J. Hoffman
Castro catastrophe

A vintage still from San Francisco's Castro neighborhood used in 'We Were Here.' (Photo courtesy of Film Collaborative)

There were angels in San Francisco.

But unlike in Tony Kushner’s two-part Pulitzer-Prize-winning play about AIDS — “Angels in America,” set in New York City in the mid-1980s — these angels were real people.

In the Kushner play, an angel descends to earth, as his fictional characters struggled with this unsettling new disease, the “gay cancer” as it was being called, an epidemic that seemed to spring from nowhere and then spread like a wicked wildfire.

In San Francisco it also struck like a bolt from the blue and purple unknown, its stigmata the purple-ish and dark reddish-blue marks of skin lesions — those herpes-like, cancerous tumors of Kaposi’s sarcoma — that began to dot faces and limbs and torsos with an ugliness that was unmistakable and the cause unknown. Right-wing televangelist Jerry Falwell called the lesions, which were seen as the defining illnesses of AIDS in the 1980s, to be the signs of Satan’s claim over sins of the flesh and God’s punishment for those same-sex sins, demons of a heaven-sent plague upon homosexuality.

“For a group of gay men, so into physical appearance, this was a disease whose very physical manifestations were horrifying,” says Daniel, one of the five people profiled in a new and deeply affecting documentary film, “We Were Here,” a gut-punch of a feature-length film by producer-director David Weissman, about the coming of AIDS to the Bay Area, and the human havoc it wrought.

This film is truly a moving picture. Co-presented with Reel Affirmations, as part of the 25th Annual FilmFest D.C. (now through April 17), it is playing tonight and Saturday night at the Regal Cinemas Gallery Place, on 7th Street, N.W., near Verizon Center. Each showing is at 6:30 p.m. followed by town meetings to discuss the film and its ramifications today in D.C. where the disease still flourishes.

Each one of the five in “We Were Here” is a witness, a survivor, and haunted in some indelible way by what they saw. Four of them are gay men (Daniel, Ed, Guy and Paul), who each contracted HIV yet somehow survived. One is a straight woman (Eileen) who ministered to the patients, as a nurse who cared about them as human beings, not clinical case studies.

Like Eileen, who appears to be a modern-day Florence Nightingale, each one is an angel, each able to say, “we were here.” Each is a survivor of the mysterious epidemic that moved through San Francisco in the 1980s with all the ferocity of an avenging angel, a grim reaper carrying off those who had sown such pleasure, but now so many of them faced death as a result.

Each is an eyewitness. At the skillful hand of filmmaker Weissman, who also earlier produced “The Cockettes,” a documentary about the campier side of the Bay Area, the testimony of the five is heartfelt and eloquent, bringing the kind of emotion that only those who experienced it first hand can bring.

Daniel’s voice is such an example. His voice is riveting, his gaze impossible to turn away from. He’s a modern-day Ancient Mariner come to tell us of how wrong things can get when bad things happen to good people.

He recalls that tragic time when no one could comprehend what was happening, as the virus burned its way through the carefree, almost heedless hedonism that came to the Bay Area after Stonewall in 1969, when hippies flocked to the Haight Ashbury and gays to the Castro. For a time all was well. But it was the sexual romp before the gathering storm.

Paul, who found his early calling in political action working with Harvey Milk, says, “I came to San Francisco with nothing but my backpack and my boyfriend.” He recalls that in the mid-1970s, “I believed that at that time in San Francisco there were nothing but crazy dreamers.”

Daniel went, recalling that, “I always wanted to meet a blond surfer but I was still in the closet, but then I came out with a bang,” in part spurred by being cast in the gay-themed play “The Boys in the Band.”

One observer, appearing in the film, puts it bluntly about that era: “If you took a lot of young gay men and asked them, ‘How much sex would you like to have?,’ the answer was, ‘A lot,’ and the sense was, sex is good, and more sex is good,” and after all, he adds, “We came to San Francisco to be gay.” Ed, who moved to the city in 1981, is equally blunt: “I was always in relationships, but they were open … My sexual outlet was always the bath houses and it was fun.”

But times were changing. In 1979, Harvey Milk was assassinated. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president. The hopes and dreams of hippie hedonism didn’t last. But then, says Weissman, who documents it with clinical detail from archival footage, signs of trouble began to appear.

“People were wasting, losing so much weight, [San Francisco's Castro neighborhood] looked like a concentration camp,” says Daniel. “You almost had to turn away, it was just too scary.” He felt haggard and haunted: “I was losing all the fat in my face and my butt — I would walk by a store window and jump, ‘Who was that?’ — I was skin and bones.”

At times death came with startling swiftness. Eileen, who chose to care for AIDS sufferers and then to work on clinical trials seeking pharmaceutical relief of the worst symptoms, says that in the hospital where she worked, “People were coming in with a KS lesion one day and were dead 10 days later.” Her own heart went out to them, but others shrank away in fear and ignorance, as some voices were raised calling for tattoos to be stenciled onto all persons diagnosed with HIV and some even called for packing them away into leper-like colonies.

“From the beginning,” she says, “I just couldn’t understand the homophobia that was going on and the fear of going into the [hospital] rooms.”

“There was nothing that unusual in that people are of course going to die,” says Ed, who speaks like a creative writer, a craft in which he earned a graduate degree. But in San Francisco, he says, “It’s just that it happened in a targeted community, to people who were disenfranchised, separated from their families.”   But then a kind of miracle happened when people like Eileen stepped forward, as well as gay men who were not infected. In Ed’s words, “A whole different group of people stepped up and became their families.”

They got involved. Eileen joined ACT UP. Daniel fought his way back from depression and worked on the Names Project, which made the AIDS quilt.

Each of five was chosen, says Weissman, because they had a special story to tell, and the film delivers what they have to say with an emotional wallop. But more than that, he admits, “The city is also a character” in the film, which he calls “Very personal to me” and “a love letter to San Francisco,” where after some years living in Portland, Ore., he is now based. A commercial release is planned for later in the year.

Weissman, who is gay, was born in 1954 in Los Angeles, and never went to college, he explains, because he “lived through the hippie times.” He got into filmmaking in his late 20s. He says it was “something on the spur of the moment.” He took coursework at the City College of San Francisco, but says at first he never thought of himself as a documentarian. Instead, he produced a series of short comedies until finally, after “a moment of unexpected inspiration,” he made the 2001 acclaimed documentary, “The Cockettes,” about the Bay Area’s legendary theater troupe of hippies and drag queens.

“Some people worry that seeing a film like this will be a downer,” Weissman says. “But that’s definitely not the case. Instead, it’s a cathartic experience, healing and empowering.”

“Especially for young gay men today, who don’t know very much about our history,” Weissman says the film opens “a window about how we got where we are today, and the resilience our community has shown in the face of terrible adversity.”

Other gay-themed films slated for fest

The Washington, D.C. 25th annual international film festival event comes alive this week overflowing the Historic Lincoln Theatre on U Street, AMC Mazza Gallerie, Regal Gallery Place at Verizon Center on 7th Street N.W., the Landmark E Street Cinemas, the Avalon and other venues through April 17.

“We know for sure that people in D.C. are interested in films other than Hollywood films,” says Tony Gittens, who founded the festival in 1987.

Themes include “Justice Matters,” a cluster of films focusing on social justice issues; Global Rhythms, a special section of music films; Short Cuts, eight films less than feature length from around the world; and “Lunafest,” nearly 90 minutes of short films for, by and about women. Tickets for most films are $11, he says, and shows tend to sell out, so buying tickets online is the smart bet.

For a complete list of films and events, which include “freebies” for children and seniors, and to purchase tickets, visit filmfestdc.org or call 888-996-4774 from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Friday and from noon-5 p.m. on weekends. Tickets may also be purchased at the theater on the day of the show, with the box office opening one hour before the venue’s first screening of the day.

In addition to “We Were Here,” three others have LGBT appeal:

“Circumstance” (“Sharayet”) in Persian with English subtitles 9 p.m. tonight and 6 p.m. Saturday at Regal Cinemas Gallery Place. Directed by Maryam Keshavasrz, this joint French-Iranian-USA production won this year’s Sundance Film Festival audience award. A young Iranian girl, still in her teens, Atafeh, and her best friend Shireen, experiment with mutual sexual attraction amid the subculture of Tehran’s underground art scene and face familial disapproval.

“For 80 Days” (“80 egunean”) in Spanish with English subtitles co-presented with the Embassy of Spain at 7:30 p.m. Sunday and 8:30 p.m. Monday at the Avalon Theatre, 5612 Connecticut Ave. N.W. Directed by Jon Garano and Jose Maria Goenaga, this Spanish entry depicts two women, one of them lesbian, who were best friends in youth, who meet again by accident 50 years later.

“Loose Cannons” (“Mine Vaganti”) in Italian with English subtitles screens at 9 p.m. tonight and 7 p.m. Saturday at AMC Mazza Gallery, 5300 Wisconsin Ave. N.W.

Directed by Ferzan Ozpetek, the films depicts a large, eccentric family whose patriarch puts pressure on the two sons, who are gay, to follow in the family business.

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