As the years passed after the exhilarating, exhausting release of The Cockettes in 2002, David Weissman arrived at the conclusion that he was through making films. It wasn’t the agony of fundraising that cooled his coals, but a more basic concern: He was insufficiently jazzed about any of the ideas he was coming up with. But when the notion struck of revisiting the early years of the AIDS outbreak in San Francisco, Weissman sprang into action. He obtained a small grant and started conducting marathon interviews with people who lived here before and during the crisis. It’s still early days for Heartbreak and Heroism: Stories from the Plague Years in San Francisco but Weissman has a clear fix on the film he making.
"I can almost describe it in the same way I described our objectives with The Cockettes," he says, sitting in the Peet’s under the Whole Foods on California and Franklin. "I want to honor in a complex way the experiences of people who lived through that era, and I want to illuminate that era for people who really have no idea what we as individuals and a community went through when the epidemic hit."
To that end, he plans to interview as many as 25 people with the intention of selecting six or seven to carry the movie. "My sense is the film will have more power if it’s fewer interviews that are more in-depth than a lot of interviews that are more diffuse," Weissman explains. "And that’s something that I realized about five minutes into the first interview." Rather than the familiar blend of sound bites and archival footage, Weissman anticipates lengthy, uninterrupted chunks of testimony. "Each person will have their own internal logic, their own narrative arc, as opposed to the film having a specific narrative arc," he says.
Weissman is qualifying his subjects via one crucial detail. "I’m only interviewing people who lived here before the epidemic started," he declares. "People who had a pre-existing relationship to San Francisco, because for me San Francisco is a character in the film. I’m not purporting to tell a complete factual or chronological history of the epidemic. I’m trying to capture the relationship between this city and the experience of the AIDS epidemic."
The general perception among audiences is that documentary makers discover as they go, relinquishing their preconceived notions to follow a story where it leads. That’s certainly true (or so one hopes) for verité docs, but historical films usually originate with a proposition or opinion based on research and analysis. Again, Weissman is varying from the standard modus operandi.
"I’m not sure exactly how it’s going to play out," confides Weissman, who’s reunited with Cockettes co-director and editor Bill Weber and DP Marsha Kahm. "This is sort of the most organic process of making a film that I’ve ever done. It’s very intuitive. I know what I want the movie to do, so it’s about pulling in material and making that material work toward my objectives. That’s partially why I want to do so many interviews, to be able to pick the most effective interviews to make the film serve its function."
It’s a tad surreal having a conversation about the devastation of the 1980s and ’90s surrounded by people obliviously talking on their cellphones and tapping at their laptops. Life goes on, of course, even in San Francisco. One gathers that Weissman, who moved here from Venice Beach in 1976, and for the past five years, has divided his time between San Francisco and Portland, has long since learned to reconcile past tragedy with present-day concerns.
"I’m coming in with something of a thesis of my own, which will impact the way the movie is completed," he explains. "But I hope that the interviews will to some degree justify that thesis, which is that there is something special in San Francisco’s history and the kind of people who moved here that made the AIDS epidemic play out in a particularly San Franciscan way, for better and for worse. I think the people who moved here to be gay were a different type of people than the people who moved to New York to be gay. It’s a big generalization, but I feel like people moved to San Francisco to be free." In contrast, those who chose New York, Weissman suggests, were largely attracted to a career-driven culture. "San Francisco was really counterculture."
Weissman sees Heartbreak and Heroism as a film that will play festivals, television and the educational market, but not theaters. He also anticipates that its function will change over time.
"I think there are people who won’t want to see it right away because it’s still too painful. And then I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to in their 20s who are really, really excited that I’m making this because they don’t really know anything about the epidemic, and they do on some level realize that it informs the reality that they’re living in."
The doc will likely have enormous cathartic power, dredging up long-buried emotions. At the same time, Weissman points out, the story of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco is one of dealing with grief, bonding with strangers, confronting power structures and rebuilding community.
"If I felt like this movie was just going to be a downer, I wouldn’t be making it." Weissman says. "I feel very strongly that it can be an incredibly inspiring film."
Notes from the Underground
The July 15 deadline is approaching to submit works for the S.F. Film Society’s first-ever Cinema by the Bay festival in October. There’s no entry fee; details are available from SFFS’s entry form site. East Bay impresario Will "The Thrill" Viharo, a free agent since the fates of the Parkway and El Cerrito are in limbo, makes his S.F. debut July 23 at the 4 Star with "Shatfest." The festivities include a William Shatner double bill, live burlesque and other 'B’ movie-meets-grindhouse treats.
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