David Weissman’s latest film, We Were Here, the monumental documentary homage about San Francisco’s early response to the AIDS pandemic, returns to the Castro Theater on World AIDS Day this Sunday December 1st at 7PM.
David Weissman is an Emmy Award nominated filmmaker, teacher, film programmer, public speaker and longtime activist. He is best known as producer of the acclaimed documentaries, We Were Here (2011) and The Cockettes (2002). David spent more than three decades in San Francisco, where he was deeply engaged with that City’s cultural and political life.
Mr. Weissman lived in the Castro for nearly 30 years until last year he became a statistic in the City’s ongoing housing melee losing his home of over two decades that left him and all the other long-term tenants of his building pushed out into one of the most unfriendly and inflated housing markets the City has ever experienced. He now makes his home in Portland, OR.
He sat down with the Biscuit to answer a few questions about the film and his life in the Castro during the worst of the AIDS crisis that saw 20,000 San Franciscans killed.
Castro Biscuit: What drove you to make this film?
David Weissman: The idea to make this film was suggested by a boyfriend of mine who was much younger than I. He’d heard me speak many times about my experiences in those years and suggested that it would be a good idea if someone made a film about that history. I had never thought about making a film like this until that moment, but very quickly I realized that it was a movie that did need to be made, and that it needed to be made by someone who lived through those times rather than by someone who was coming from a journalistic or academic perspective.
CB: What are some of your personal memories of AIDS first appearing in the Castro?
DW: I remember the very first article in the Bay Area Reporter, saying that there had been a cluster of cases of a rare cancer reported among a group of gay men. And then a month or two later, there was another article about a rare pneumonia reported among another group of gay men. It was surreal at first. We even made nervous jokes about it – we have gay teachers, we have gay auto repair mechanics and now we even have our own cancer and pneumonia. Those jokes subsided quickly.
CB: How did you amass your storytellers for the doc? Did you know them all beforehand?
DW: The five people who wound up being in the film are there because of a combination of chance encounter and good intuition. All of them were people I knew a little, but the way they wound up in the film was that I happened to run into them under some circumstance or another, and in the course of conversation I got a sense that they might be good for the movie. I was looking for people who had the emotional openness and generosity to have that reflective experience on camera for the benefit of our community.
CB: Do you think the connective images and narration tying all the personal stories together speaks to your own AIDS oral history?
DW: The five characters in the film all lived in San Francisco during the same time that I lived here, so in many ways they are evoking my personal story through their own stories. Many people asked me if I was planning on being in the film as an interviewee myself. I didn’t really want to do that, and I’m really comfortable with the way the story is told through these five amazing people.
CB: What do you hope people take with them after they’ve seen the film?
DW: My experience in traveling with the film over the past few years is that people take so many different kinds of things from it, depending on their age and to what degree they do or don’t have a connection to this particular history. I do hope the film speaks to the power of a compassionate community, and to the ability of people to rise to the occasion in a time of unexpected crisis.
CB: What’s it like to show it in the Castro compared to everywhere else in the world you’ve shown it?
DW: I made this movie for the Castro Theater. Seeing it there is completely unlike seeing it anywhere else. The whole building, the neighborhood – it’s all haunted by the ghosts of the epidemic. And it’s also a place of celebration and connectedness and community spirit. In many ways, it’s hard for me to imagine what the Castro would’ve been like as a queer community without the Castro Theater which has played such a central role in our political and cultural life here over the past 40 years.
CB: What’s on your plate next – a doc about Sylvester (fingers crossed)?
DW: I’m hoping to do more storytelling in-person going forward. I’ve been doing a lot of appearances on college campuses and other kinds of speaking engagements and I’m finding it incredibly gratifying to have that kind of interactivity. We’ll see if I can earn a living doing that.