“There were so many people that were part of the early response to AIDS – many of whom are no longer with us. Before we lose many more of those voices and memories, I thought it was important to preserve history in the words of those who lived it - day to day - during the onset of the AIDS epidemic.” - Paul Volberding

"Life Before the Lifeboat" is the first reflective look back at how doctors, nurses and community leaders felt as they were responding to the AIDS outbreak in San Francisco during the earliest years of the epidemic. How did health workers in San Francisco take us from the realities of life during the early days of AIDS, to the lifeboat, which would eventually allow people to live with the disease?

The film features intimate conversations between Dr. Paul Volberding and some of San Francisco's courageous leaders from the earliest days of the AIDS epidemic. The documentary highlights how political and gay activists, along with San Francisco General Hospital, came together to navigate the early years of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco. The General served as the nexus for AIDS treatment in the beginning where, according to a New York Times article, Volberding and others developed what became known as the “San Francisco model” for AIDS treatment. The model was a comprehensive and rational approach to delivering care while trying to understand the science behind AIDS at a time when deep-seated fear and paranoia surrounded the disease.

Among others, the film includes conversations with Cleve Jones, AIDS Memorial Quilt founder, Mervyn Silverman, former head of San Francisco’s Department of Public Health and United States Ambassador and Dr. Eric Goosby, the State Department’s Global AIDS Coordinator. Each of the conversations takes the audience into a world that no longer exists today sometimes graphically describing the fear and humiliation that surrounded the disease. Lifeboat also captures the essence of how San Francisco’s medical, political and Gay activist communities came together to get through the dark years and emerge stronger individually and as a community. The film ends in the early 90s, when antiretroviral drugs provided, in effect, a lifeboat for people with HIV/AIDS.

June 2011 marks 30 years since the CDC (Center for Disease Control) first reported about AIDS. While the AIDS epidemic was prevalent in most major US cities, for its first decade it was perceived as primarily a disease of gay men. San Francisco's identity as the "gay haven," made its experience of the epidemic singularly concentrated and intense. This unique environment left doctors, nurses and the community with no choice but to push past personal, professional and legal boundaries. San Francisco gave birth to radical new ways of caring for the dying and approaching disease that would influence the whole country, and later the world.

Shot in an edgy and creative manner, set to soundtrack reminiscent of the 80's, the film brings to life and honors a key moment in societal history. The film was created by Kathaka Films.

Support for this project was provided by San Francisco General Hospital Foundation and was made possible through a grant from the California HealthCare Foundation, Oakland, California.

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