Holy shit. This film about the long AIDS crisis in San Francisco should be required viewing, it’s so good. It is grueling — I went through ten double-strength tissues and was reduced to sobbing at several points — but it does this by focusing on the personal experiences of five remarkable individuals who survived the epidemic by doing something about it.

Sometimes when I talk with my students about this part of our recent history, I realize they have no sense of several things. First, the joyousness with which so many gay men inhabited San Francisco during the 1970s and early 80s, finally finding a place where they felt at home. Second, the way that the slowly-moving news of a mysterious “gay cancer” affected all people, both gay and straight. Sex could kill you — a point that moralistic bigots like Jerry Falwell did not fail to remind us of, as if most of us required new reasons to feel guilt and shame. And finally, that this epidemic raged for so long that it couldn’t help but demoralize the people fighting hardest to find a cure, those who saw their friends dying all around them.

A lot of what we remember now is governmental inaction, like Reagan’s refusal to acknowledge the disease until late in his second term, or the drug companies’ shameful privileging of profits. But for this documentary those stories (like the ones Randy Shilts exposed with And the Band Played On in 1987) remain subsidiary to the experiences of these five remarkable individuals.

David Weissman’s We Were Here shows that real people — ordinary people — made a difference. It is truly the best example of showing that we are not pawns in a big game of life, subject to the whims of the powerful and the grand forces of history. In a massive, guerrilla, grassroots effort, real people in the Bay Area changed the course of treatment, caregiving, community-building, and memorialization of the dead. They changed the course of political action to change public health practices.

This documentary leaves you with an abiding respect for these ordinary people who fought and protested and risked so much to do the right thing. Tears are still dripping out of my eyes as I write this, for the film is truly that wrenching. As I watched it I wept for my dead friends and my surviving friends and my own young adult years witnessing those men grow sick and waste away. I am so glad, and so proud, to have had the chance to hear these five individuals’ stories.