Jewish Hippy from San Francisco Bridges the Gay Generation Gap with Film

Interview by Matthew Lowe

A child of the sixties, filmmaker David Weissman is disarming, genuine, and I would even say a bit magical. His documentary about the emergence of AIDS in San FranciscoWe Were Here, comes across as a love letter, rather than a history lesson. With the film being shown as part of the Amsterdam Roze Filmdagen, we spoke about his weakness for stoic Northern European guys, the safest way to do mushrooms, and how, more than anything, gay men need to speak with each other more.

Matthew: We Were Here is very much about the city of San Francisco. Have you always lived there?
David: I moved to San Francisco in 1976 from Venice Beach. It was before Harvey Milk was elected. I had long hair and was a naked gay hippy at the beach taking acid. I was here for Harvey’s election and here for his assassination and here for the whole epidemic. Except for a year in the ‘80s when I lived in Amsterdam.
What were you doing in Amsterdam?
I had a boyfriend there and was having an adventure. I’m a West Coast Jew. We’re drawn to the reserved mystique of Northern Europeans, the stoicism…
You met in San Francisco?
I met him in Amsterdam, we’re still very close. I moved there in 1984 and everything in those years was overshadowed by the onset of the epidemic. There was so much fear. It was at a time that I thought I had whatever was going around because I had a blood test that showed some sort of anomaly. This was before they identified the HIV virus. It wasn’t a great way to be moving into a new relationship.
Was the fear as palpable in Europe as it was in San Francisco?
No, there was incredible denial in Amsterdam, and in Europe in general. It was infuriating. There was a lot of, ‘Oh you Americans and your issues around sex.’ San Francisco engaged with the reality of the epidemic in a different way because it was so inescapable. You would see people with AIDS on the street here, where in other places people would hide if they were sick. There was an out-of-the-closet, in-your-face quality here that was unique.
That’s obvious in We Were Here.
The film is a love letter to the city. With my previous film, The Cockettes, my filmmaking partner, Bill Weber, and I were very determined not to make ‘a look what you missed’ movie, but ‘a look what’s possible’ movie. To some degree, that is true with We Were Here in that it’s a look at the humanity that emerged in this city amidst terrible circumstances.
What I found remarkable about the film was its simplicity.
We made some very unconventional choices with We Were Here. There is no music with the interviews, people are on screen for a long time, and their sentences aren’t cleaned up. Bill would call me up and say he added a half a second of black there or a breath here, and I would tell him to leave it. No one can say they were moved by violins or a pause. We wanted the film open the viewer’s heart in a way that wasn’t manipulative.
I had a few teary moments myself, all of which were when I found the subjects to be impossibly candid.
They’re very naked, emotionally naked in a very proud way. All of them to some degree represent the San Francisco spirit, and are capable of expressing themselves with openness and generosity.
Are you still in contact with them?
We’re really, really close actually. Bill and I just spent the weekend at Eileen’s country house. We took mushrooms together. Eileen didn’t, she just took care of us.
I love her. As the only clinical presence in the film, she was amazing.
At the research clinic that she has helped run for years, there are dogs running around. It’s a completely unconventional atmosphere that they have created. For the gay men who went there, it was so different to some university research clinic or some drug company research program. It’s an incredibly nurturing place because of who she and Jay, the doctor who also runs it, are.
After watching the film, you wonder how the reality of the crisis has slipped away in the passed two decades.
The AIDS epidemic is the biggest piece of gay history since gay liberation. For those of us that fought for and then buried two hundred of our friends, it’s painful when we still see a cavalier attitude around the epidemic.
Especially when, theoretically, transmission among gay men is easy to prevent.
It is physically easy to prevent, but it’s not so easy emotionally. All of us feel compassion towards someone who becomes infected, but I don’t feel the same compassion towards guys who are doing the infecting. We have an obligation to not perpetuate the epidemic. The epidemic could have been over if guys had stopped intentionally barebacking.
Do you think attitudes towards safe sex have relaxed at all?
It still varies tremendously. Some people remain incredibly rigorous around their safe-sex practices and some are incredibly careless. I’m participating in a hidden Facebook page where people talk about HIV disclosure issues. It’s mostly positive guys. One of the things that struck me is that a lot of them remain closeted about being positive, and have found it far more traumatic in how it’s impacted their lives than they had anticipated. This is where I think positive guys are in the best position to be leaders in prevention. The extent to which their experience can be shared is the most useful prevention tool.
Essentially, we need to speak with each other more.
Exactly. It’s our responsibility to tell our stories. In the gay community, there is a difficulty for gay men to speak to each other intergenerationally. We don’t have a natural path for mentorship within our community. I wanted the movie to open those doors. It was a younger ex-boyfriend who suggested that I make the film, and another, Holcombe Waller, who created the music.
How much younger?
I was 52 and I think he was 23 at the time. He suggested the idea after hearing me talk so much about my experiences through those years. After recoiling initially, I thought of course it needs to be done, and by someone who lived through it.

We Were Here screens as part of Roze Filmdagen at Het Ketelhuis cinema in Amsterdam on Thursday, 22 March at 19:45 and again on Sunday, 25 March at 15:30.

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