October 28th, 2016

Max’s View

We Were Here
Woody Allen was asked if he could live in any era of human history, which time would he choose.
Allen said he’d live now because of antibiotics.

Many people don’t appreciate, as Woody Allen does, how fortunate we are to have been born in the mid to late 20th Century. Thanks to 19th Century advancements in plumbing and sewage and 20th Century advancements in medicine, people hardly ever die of communicable diseases anymore.

Humanity has done such an amazing job of beating infectious diseases that we view life fundamentally differently than our ancestors.

Today we believe that it is unnatural for parents to outlive their children. However, during the first three millennia of civilization, the majority of mothers who survived childbirth lived to bury at least one of their offspring. That is the natural way. Modern society has defeated nature and given us longer lives.

A sad side effect of science’s stunning victory over disease is that there is now a movement against vaccinating children. The Anti-Vaxxers are absurdly funny in their ignorance. Because of the success of vaccines, no young parent has ever seen a child crippled by polio, disfigured by measles, or dying suddenly from rubella. So now some young parents don’t understand why vaccinations are absolutely necessary.

No American under 60 has seen anything even remotely resembling a plague. That is except for the people who lived in urban gay neighborhoods in the 1980s.

“We Were Here” is an informative and surprisingly upbeat documentary from the point of view of five people who lived in San Francisco during the AIDS epidemic.

Naturally, the movie doesn’t have such a happy beginning. With photographs and vivid stories, the survivors try to communicate the horrors that AIDS inflicted on its victims.

The reason why it took years to properly diagnose the disease is because AIDS killed everyone differently. In the early 80s, it was often called “gay cancer” because many victims developed a cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma which usually only afflicts the elderly. Many were hit with sudden and debilitating pneumonia. Some AIDS patients went blind. Others mysteriously shed dozens of pounds and wasted away.

All told, 15,000 people died in San Francisco during the first decade of the crisis. And most of them were residents of the small gay neighborhood. Everyone there lost people they knew. It was as close to a true Black Death-style plague as any American has experienced.

But rather than annihilating the neighborhood, AIDS brought it closer together. Before the epidemic, people came to the Castro District for freedom, unlimited sex, and little else. AIDS turned the neighborhood into a community.

“We Were Here” evolves into a heartening story of human decency as all the protagonists describe how they – and the city at large – came together to help each other.

One guy joined a group that set up a buddy system so that every AIDS patient had a friend and advocate during their final months. One guy opened a store that gave all its profits to the sick. One lady who used to work as a nurse in an AIDS clinic founded a research facility that eventually discovered the drug cocktail that successfully treats HIV.

The film admits that gay males were generally dismissive of lesbians in the 1970s. During the AIDS crisis, lesbians did so much unsolicited charity work – from delivering food to the homebound to giving blood when the Red Cross wasn’t taking blood from men – it created the inclusive LGBT community that San Francisco has today.

Considering the subject matter, “We Were Here” is as positive a story as you can imagine.

Nevertheless, “We Were Here” is a sober reminder that plagues are a real thing and they’re unfathomably awful. No one can force you to be grateful to modern science for saving us from deadly outbreaks. We should probably force you to vaccinate your children, though.

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