Bearing witness is powerful. It carries history. It forces memory. Each witness, however, may have a different experience, a different point of view. Documentarians find the witnesses and from their voices extract the threads that, woven together, tell a story.
Opening Friday for a week’s run at the Castro Theatre — in a benefit for Shanti Project and Project Inform, featuring special guest Rufus Wainwright — “We Were Here,” a new documentary by David Weissman, tells a resonant story, particularly for anyone who has lived in San Francisco for the past 30 years.
It is a reflection on the AIDS pandemic from the perspective of those who experienced the giddy before, the devastating during and are still here now.
Only five voices tell the story of the nightmare that, by its midpoint, claimed the lives of more than 15,000 San Franciscans, most of them gay men.
“It was a fairly radical choice,” Weissman says, “but the response we’ve been getting from audiences is that they do get that combination of both epic and intimate from these five people.”
This is not the first time Weissman has delved into San Francisco history. In 2002 he and Bill Weber saw the broad release of “The Cockettes,” their documentary about The City’s gender-bending ’70s performance group.
“One of the things Bill and I learned while making that film is that it’s great when the history emerges from the personal rather than having to contextualize the time with all kinds of facts. I think we took that to the extreme this time, working to make an enormous history emerge for a well-selected group of personal stories.”
Here those stories belong to Paul Boneberg, Guy Clark, Eileen Glutzer, Daniel Goldstein and Ed Wolf. They all describe their own, firsthand experiences from their initial encounter with something called “the gay cancer” until now.
Weissman acknowledges that the film is not definitive. “Factually we barely scratched the surface. The attempt was not to cover all of the bases factually, but to evoke a sense of time and place and circumstance and to tap into the deepest emotional places in the audience.”
He adds, “I’m sure there are people who will choose to not see it, which I completely respect. For those that do come, it’s my hope that they will have an incredibly emotional experience and feel how wonderful it is to really allow those feelings that we are sometimes afraid of to fully flourish and to function as a healing process.”
IF YOU GO
We Were Here
With Paul Boneberg, Guy Clark, Eileen Glutzer, Daniel Goldstein, Ed Wolf
Directed by David Weissman
Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Where: Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., San Francisco
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Tickets: $25 to $100
Contact: (415) 674-4700, www.shanti.org
Note: A VIP reception precedes the screening at 6 p.m., and a Q&A session follows at 9 p.m.