‘We Were Here’: AIDS survivors tell their stories


A screen grab from “We Were Here,” available on Netflix. The documentary covered the San Francisco AIDS outbreak of the 70s and 80s.

Students from all types of backgrounds gathered together at the University of Connecticut’s Rainbow Center to watch a documentary titled “We Were Here,” about the San Francisco AIDS outbreak of the 70s and 80s on World AIDS Day.

The Rainbow Cinema was filled with students and a few local residents. The event coordinators even seemed a bit surprised by the turnout. Some of the attendants were fulfilling a cultural event requirement for their sororities or fraternities, while others were simply interested in seeing the film.

The 2011 90-minute documentary by David Weissman tells the story of five protagonists and their stories of living and working in San Francisco during the AIDS epidemic outbreak. Only one of the protagonists identified as HIV positive, but the others worked in hospitals or communities that were heavily affected by the epidemic.

More than 18,000 people have died from HIV or AIDS in San Francisco, many of them men.

After the film, the event coordinators posed a few discussion questions and opened up the floor for comments. Many of the attendants agreed that it was a somber and sad film, but told an important story.

One part of the film explained the attempt to “quarantine” the people affected by HIV, and some people even proposed identification tactics like tattoos.

One member of the audience understood the attempt of quarantining those that were sick, but said that other tactics should have been taken to help those that were affected.

“The government and other higher powers shouldn’t isolate people with AIDS and leave them to rot,” fifth-semester chemistry student Conar Barrientos Smyth said. “Quarantine seems like a rational, immediate response, but it is still discriminatory against people who need help. Instead, the government should try to help by funding and supporting AIDS victims. Quarantining people plays into attacking and fearmongering minority groups.”

Barrientos Smyth is currently at UConn in a study abroad program from Ireland. He said his experience in America has been very humbling and informative so far.

“You learn about people and events outside of your nation, but you really can’t understand their experiences until you immerse yourself in the culture. It really changes your perspective.”

While most of the attendants were college students, one audience member, who labeled himself as “old,” shared his experience in those times.

“The fact that we could be quarantined, as well as the fear of AIDS itself, was very frightening,” he said. “Many communities are still facing hatred today.”

The documentary, which is also on Netflix, won several awards such as the Dorian Awards for Documentary of the Year and LGBT- Themed Documentary of the Year, as well as the Mumbai Queer Film Festival Best Documentary Feature Award.

Claire Galvin is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at claire.galvin@uconn.edu.

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