In 1983, San Francisco General Hospital opened a completely unique AIDS ward for care of people diagnosed and therefore inevitably dying of the disease. It was the first of its kind, and after many hurdles it went on to inform the standards for care of HIV-positive patients around the world. In 5B, staff, reporters, policy makers and survivors from inside and around that ward narrate the little-taught history that was made in that hospital.
While very educational, 5B is not for the faint of heart. Packed with footage taken from inside the hospital from the ward’s opening through its closing in 2003, images and sounds of patients in pain, weeping, or describing their struggles will undoubtedly leave you in tears. The nurses who worked there then give interviews today about the lives they saw end, and the fights they had to endure just to be allowed to show the basic compassion of holding hands with those patients. A reporter tells of what it was like to try and give the news while dozens turned to thousands during the first 6 years, and how it took 21 thousand deaths before President Reagan would acknowledge AIDS for the first time. Volunteers talk about throwing weekly brunches to keep morale up in the ward, helping patients to eat and giving them a much-needed feeling of family.
A particularly tough thing to watch is the interviews included from some of the doctors and legislators who actively tried to limit or remove the basic rights of AIDS victims, going so far as to insist that an island-quarantine and forced HIV-Positive tattooing was a solution. It’s incredibly generous but also necessary that the documentary provides multiple perspectives on what happens, because the end result is a framework that allows the viewer to see the truth of the matter, including how terribly effective and unwittingly hateful people can be when they are afraid. The reality of cruel mobs protesting funerals where friends and family of the dead grieved is truly horrendous, but also may help some of the audience to contextualize the frustrating and discouraging American culture we know today – these events have happened in our lifetime, even if some of us were only children at the time.
At one point, a small child is seen outside a church, protesting alongside his parents, sporting a disturbingly hateful sign. Despite how awful it is, such imagery may provide us some insight into how certain people who grew up in that era – people who might today be our mothers and fathers, or aunts and uncles – would have difficulty undoing the very thorough work done by their elders to condition a whole generation of people to think that the homosexual community isn’t worthy of basic human rights. The most important thing that this film has to say is that all people need care. So often, during the AIDS epidemic, the homosexual community was vilified and punished for things that were not their fault, and it is heinous that they were regularly excluded from being treated as human beings during their darkest hours. People require compassion, and it doesn’t matter who someone is or where they come from or what kind of sex they choose to have. When someone is in need, providing care is the most honorable, decent thing that you could do, and anyone who would argue against that is wrong.
It’s interesting to me that this documentary was commissioned by Johnson & Johnson – a company that has spent the last decade embroiled in litigation over some truly horrific failings, including mass fraud, bribery, and knowingly providing untested and defective medical devices like hip replacements and pelvic mesh that have caused debilitating disabilities in thousands of patients. Perhaps 5B is an attempt from J&J to do some image-cleaning in front of audiences and broker forgiveness (undeserved, let me assure you) from the public.
Regardless of who funded it, I cannot deny that this documentary is effective and critical viewing for anyone born after the 80’s. So little is taught in American schools about this tumultuous time in our very recent history, and I can only hope that this spectacular film exposes as many people as possible to the tragedy of the epidemic, the hope we have for the future as science and medicine continue to fight the virus, and the powerful inspiration these nurses offer. Medicine is crucial to all in need, and these people were truly providing the best medicine they could when they demonstrated the purest kind of love for their patients: care.
5B is now playing in theaters in the US.