Dir: Dan Krauss, Paul Haggis | US, Doc 95′
A new documentary from Oscar nominee Dan Krauss (The Kill Team) and Paul Haggis delves into the history of the first ward in the world for people with AIDS, at San Francisco General Hospital. The film focuses on the unsung heroes, a small collection of nurses and caregivers who banded together to provide courage, compassion and, crucially, touch to those devastated by the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the early 1980s. Even pets were allowed to visit their afflicted owners and partners were invited to make the ward their home.
Spiking their film with moments of sharp humour, the result is a poignant tribute to this tragic time in American history, and a celebration of the quiet heroes worthy of renewed recognition, although the directors do demonise those medical professionals who exercised prudence in their treatment of the patients. Particularly, top orthopaedic surgeon and head of the San Francisco surgical team, Dr Day, who decided to wear protective garments because she wanted, quite understandably, to avoid being infected from the spurting blood of infected patients. Also unpopular was President Reagan who introduced a raft of measures to protect those working in AIDS care. Reagan even considered exiling the sick to their own private island – as the Venetians did to stamp out the plague – and one AIDS sufferer jokes: “we’d be happy to go if it was Santa Catalina island”. Yet it was an era were America was just not ready for people coming out, let along dying at the same time, so these draconian measures were hardly surprising.
Combining archive footage and interviews with those involved and affected, Krauss and Haggis explain that those people first infected with the virus in the late 1970s went downhill rapidly, often dying within months, even weeks. As fear spread throughout the community of San Francisco and beyond, AIDS sufferers lost their jobs and were kicked out of their apartments. One dying caretaker’s desk was even burnt in the parking lot of his building. In contrast, those pioneering individuals, who offered loving support, talk of their own memories: Rita Rockett even staged parties once a week in the ward, offering musical entertainment and food. Grateful patients were allowed to say: “they loved her to bits, but not to death!”
With the arrival of protease inhibitors – antiviral drugs that block the disease – fatalities eventually went into decline in the late 1990s. And many of the talking heads featured in the documentary have lived to tell their tearful tales. Well-paced and informative, 5B is a fascinating film that could have even added a positive twist in the fight for AIDS. These point towards immunity and even the possible eradication of the disease in the not too distant future. MT
CANNES FILM FESTIVAL 2019 | GOLDEN EYE DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION