Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.

Support the Forward

Funded by readers like you DonateSubscribe
The Schmooze

Director David Weissman on the AIDS Epidemic

There is a heart-wrenching moment in “We Were Here,” David Weissman’s documentary about the AIDS crisis in San Francisco, which stands out from the rest of the film. Ed Wolf, an activist and one of the five people extensively interviewed by Weissman, remembers a conversation he had with the father of a hospitalized and infected man.

The father said to him: “You know, it’s harder for me to find out my son is a fag than that he’s going to die soon.”

Image by Photo courtesy of Peter Berlin

What can you say to that? Weissman, who is gay, lived in San Francisco and was witness to the crisis. Some of his prior work reflects that experience, including a short film, “Song From An Angel,” which featured local performer Rodney Price doing a song and tap dance about his own death just two weeks before he died of AIDS.

What is surprising is how calmly, almost clinically, Weissman’s interviewees recall the era — anyone anticipating a documentary version of Larry Kramer’s play, “The Normal Heart,” will be surprised, if not disappointed. It’s not that Weissman’s subjects are passionless — there are tears when dead lovers and friends are discussed — but there is surprisingly little anger. Weissman talked to The Arty Semite about what prompted his work on this film, coming out to his father, and his anger at the Reagan administration. “We Were Here” airs June 14 as part of the Independent Lens series on PBS.

Curt Schleier: Your Jewish background influenced your decision to make this film. How?

David Weisssman: My mother was a refugee. She was Polish, but came here from Bucharest in ’39, when she was 15. Part of what I remember is that in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, there were conversations in Jewish communities on the Holocaust, a topic that wasn’t talked about before.

People who lived through the camps didn’t want to speak about it and no one wanted go ask. But then the personal stories started to be told. There started to be this vast outpouring of personal histories on both sides. People realized their stories needed to be told and others realized there were questions that needed to be answered.

That’s one of the ways I feel my understanding of the Holocaust and my own family made me realize it was time for stories of the epidemic to come out, stories that weren’t told while it was happening. When specific events like these take place, stories need to be told [before] healing can take place. My family’s background made me think in those terms.

When did you realize you were gay?

That’s a complicated question. There’s not a specific moment. I think most people you talk to will say that. I think there’s a kind of self-awareness that evolves.

What was the reaction of your parents?

My mom died when I was 15. My father was very compassionate and loving. I think I came out to him when I was about 19 years old. My father was mostly concerned about my happiness. I think he may have suspected a little. But it wasn’t so visible in those years, so much part of the public discourse.

Problems with sexual identity are the leading cause of teenage suicide. Were you bullied? Did you have problems growing up?

It isn’t problems with sexual identity that cause suicides; it’s homophobia. I wasn’t stereotypically gay in any way, so I don’t think people suspected and I wasn’t directly bullied in any way. I was a social, very popular kid. There were kids in my age group who suffered far more than I did. I’m more of the hippie generation. We’re very sweet.

And that sweetness shows in your film, which seems largely devoid of anger. Are you angry at anything?

I’m angry at the response of the non-affected community. The bulk of the rest of the world was indifferent at best and, at worst, celebrated that we were going to die. It was a very homophobic lack of response and it was reprehensible. We were a pariah community and people felt we were getting what we deserved. And the response of the Reagan Administration was criminally negligent.


Watch the trailer for the documentary ‘We Were Here’:

Explore

Most Popular

In Case You Missed It

Engage

  • SHARE YOUR FEEDBACK

  • UPCOMING EVENT

    SKY & SCULPTURE

    Hybrid: Online and at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan

    Oct 2, 2022

    6:30 pm ET · 

    A Sukkah, IMKHA, created by artist Tobi Kahn, for the Marlene Meyerson JCC of Manhattan is an installation consisting of 13 interrelated sculpted painted wooden panels, constituting a single work of art. Join for a panel discussion with Rabbi Joanna Samuels, Chief Executive Director of the Marlene Meyerson JCC of Manhattan, Talya Zax, Innovation Editor of the Forward, and Tobi Kahn, Artist. Moderated by Mattie Kahn.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.