David Weissman’s powerhouse documentary “We Were Here” revisits the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco — ground zero in terms of the disease’s swath and the gay community’s response — through the acutely touching memories of five people.
Two of the five, artist Daniel Goldstein and nurse Eileen Glutzer, are Jewish, as is the filmmaker. It’s no coincidence, Weissman readily admits.
“I have the Holocaust in my family background, and it impacted the way I experienced the epidemic while it was happening, and that impacted the way I’ve made the film,” Weissman said in an interview a few weeks after the 90-minute documentary premiered in competition at the Sundance Film Festival.
“I think a non-Jew would not have made the film this way,” he continued. “It’s very reflective of all of the issues our own community went through in dealing with the silence versus conversation around the Holocaust. To the extent that [gay people] can learn from the experience of Holocaust survivors, both within the Jewish community and the way they engaged with the outer world, we can as a community hopefully someday find healing and a way of telling our story that helps the world.”
“We Were Here” has its U.S. theatrical premiere Friday, Feb. 25 through Thursday, March 3 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco.
Weissman moved to San Francisco in the 1970s and began making humorous short films in the 1980s. He made one of the funniest and most popular trailers in San Francisco Jewish Film Festival history before breaking out nationally in 2002 with “The Cockettes,” about the legendary San Francisco performance troupe.
“We Were Here” weaves the thread of grief and loss with uplifting themes of individual compassion and community support. Glutzer doesn’t mention it on camera, but she was one of the many Jews who became activists in the ’60s out of a commitment to social justice.
“Eileen was a very heavy-duty lefty, involved in all kinds of intense groups,” Weissman says. “Eileen was probably, of the group in the film, the most defined by her politics.”
Goldstein, an ambitious, workaholic print and collage artist, achieved immediate success in his 20s. After he and his partner were diagnosed — and his partner succumbed to AIDS — Goldstein made two major shifts: He gravitated to sculpture, and he turned his attention outward, founding two nonprofits (Under One Roof and Visual Aid) that benefited people with AIDS.
“For me, Daniel represents the most extraordinary degree of care-giving,” Weissman says. “Over and over and over and over again, despite his own illness and losses, his focus was on taking care of other people and taking care of the community.”
Onscreen, Goldstein contributes perhaps the most wrenching recollections of the film’s five subjects as well as some of the most sardonic.
“Daniel is, to me, so quintessentially Jewish,” Weissman effuses, “particularly in the way that within one sentence he can overlap humor and incredible emotional pain, and the way he can tell an incredibly poignant story as a joke. Not in an insensitive way, but in a rich way.”
“We Were Here” is a film of enormous gravitas, but it’s not a depressing one. It puts the viewer in a reflective frame of mind, an all-too-rare experience at the cinema.
“It’s a movie that triggers people’s own stuff in big ways, because it deals with the elemental issues of how we behave while we’re on the planet,” Weissman asserts.
Citing one of Glutzer’s pithier comments in the film — “I don’t have to worry when I’m old that I haven’t done anything” — Weissman can’t help but reflects on how Jews aim to make a difference in their own lifetimes.
“Particularly for my generation,” he says, “it’s a very Jewish thing to feel a sense of social responsibility and the importance of engaging in the best way we can. I think it’s a healthy confrontation for people to come out of the screening and think, ‘What am I doing for the world?’ ”
“We Were Here” runs Friday, Feb. 25 through Thursday, March 3 at the Castro Theatre, S.F. Q&A with director David Weissman after all showings (except last screening daily).