A new documentary screened on campus tells the story of AIDS’ emergence in the San Francisco gay community through several voices — one of which belongs to a USF alumnus.
“We Were Here,” David Weissman and co-director Bill Weber’s film about the early years of the AIDS epidemic, was shown Tuesday night at the USF Library’s Grace Allen Room.
The documentary follows five individuals who lived in San Francisco in the ’80s as the disease arose and began claiming numerous lives — 16,000 San Franciscans by 1997, according to the film. As AIDS spread, these figures fought back in ways ranging from forming Mobilization Against AIDS to nursing victims when other hospitals wouldn’t.
One of these subjects was Ed Wolf, who worked in a patient AIDS unit and provided support to HIV and AIDS victims. Wolf graduated from USF in 1971 with a degree in English and returned for the film’s screening in what he said was “a very emotional night.”
“I came to this campus (when) I was 17 years old,” he said. “I knew I was different, but in 1966, there was no word ‘gay.’ There was certainly no word ‘pride’ connected to it. I did think I was the only one. Then, in these buildings on this land, I met my tribe. All of these early gay men before Stonewall, finding each other here.”
After graduating, Wolf moved to New York and lived in Greenwich Village for a few years before moving to San Francisco.
“I got an apartment and then, one by one, my tribe came,” he said. “Then what the movie is about, then AIDS came and it got them all. It got them all but one and myself.”
In one of the film’s pivotal scenes, Wolf recalls going to the Star Pharmacy to buy rolling papers, then seeing photographs on the windows of a man’s purple lesions with the heading, “Watch out guys.”
At that time, AIDS was still unknown enough that it was described with terms like “mysterious gay cancer” and treated with experimental drugs. Daniel Goldstein, another one of the film’s interview subjects, describes stopping Suramin treatments because he couldn’t handle the drug’s side effects — only to be the sole survivor of his trial group.
Even as AIDS appeared outside of the gay community, Wolf said there was still homophobia and misconceptions within the larger population about the disease.
“Initially, there was this transition to thinking, ‘F—— brought it here,'” he said. “‘This is why my wife has it. This is why my children have it.’ So there was still the linking of homosexuality and sickness.”
Yet Wolf said mainstream America changed as it saw how the San Francisco gay community cared for its own, such as victims volunteering in clinical trials and lesbians volunteering to care for gay AIDS victims. Now, HIV is no longer the serious death sentence that it was in the era “We Were Here” depicts.
“I’ve given out many (HIV-positive) results to young people once the treatments have arrived, and they’re not as
devastated as people were before 1994, where they’d sit and weep and weep,” Wolf said.
USF history professor David Johnson, who introduced the film, praised it as both “an incredibly moving
documentary” and as a snapshot of history.
“It’s a historical documentary about a particular time and place — San Francisco in the 1980s,” Johnson said.
“We Were Here” has played at the Sundance and Berlin International Film festivals, and even had some backing for an Academy Awards nomination.
Wolf said he spent Tuesday waiting to see if the Oscars would nominate the film for Best Documentary. Though it ultimately didn’t make the list, he said the finished product is reward enough.
“‘We Were Here’ was on the shortlist and we had all been anticipating like, ‘Oh my God, what would it be like to go to Hollywood and meet Meryl Streep?'” Wolf said. “Then the word came out and we didn’t make the final cut … then I sat here tonight and I watched this film, and you know what? I think this movie is so potent and strong and such a wonderful document … clearly it has a whole life in front of it.”