SHOULD I SEE IT?
Released during Pride Month, 5B is an emotional, educating documentary with new stories and experiences to share from the opening years of the AIDS epidemic.
The film lets the nurses and doctors speak for themselves, and, in turn, the film balances difficult subject matter with an uplifting story of heroism and bravery.
These stories are not “gay” stories, they are American stories. We need to hear them and see these images.
Preaches to the choir and may not speak to those who perhaps need to see this movie the most.
Opts for some narrative flourishes it does not need and diminishes some of the film’s power.
Please don’t make me say it out loud.
In the new documentary 5B, co-directors Paul Haggis and Dan Krauss take us back to a time when the AIDS epidemic was brand new, HIV was preordained “gay cancer”, and no one seemingly had any idea why scores of gay men were dying within months of becoming stricken with the disease.
Haggis and Krauss open 5B by taking us to happier and somewhat more care free times, settling into San Francisco, circa the late-1970s. “Coming out” was becoming more common and the gay community had started to step out of the closet and live their lives out in the open, making their voices heard more than ever before. But then, as San Francisco nurse Cliff Morrison tells us early in the film, everything changed in 1981.
5B refers to the hospital ward at the San Francisco General Hospital, which exclusively treated AIDS patients. The ward opened in 1983, the nurses and doctors who appear in the film share stories of what it was like being, essentially, at a clinical Ground Zero in the initial days of the AIDS outbreak.
Morrison, who led the effort to open the clinic, speaks to the fear which surrounded the onset of the AIDS and HIV crisis. Patients were essentially ticking time bombs, with their bodies ravaged by immunodeficiency, sudden weight loss, and painful lesions forming all over their skin. When 5B was opened, there was still so much nurses and doctors did not know about the deadly disease.
Haggis, an Oscar-winning filmmaker for Crash, and Krauss, a multiple-time Oscar nominee in the Documentary Short Subject category, definitely bring a tenderness and compassion to the story. Watching this, one cannot help but be moved by the bravery and fearlessness these medical professionals exhibited in tackling something no one truly understood.
When lead physician, Alison Moed Paolercio, talks about the conversations doctors and nurses had with their spouses, families, and partners about essentially heading into the unknown and placing themselves at risk for exposure, you get a sense of just how frightening a proposition this was for everyone involved.
A rather conventional documentary, the stories are nonetheless compelling and 5B is an emotional, important essay. We learn that the mindset shifted from working to cure people to simply caring for people, and we see a different side of this tragedy films have seldom, if ever, explored.
Genuine and heartfelt, 5B sometimes hits its point a little too sharply. This is easily forgiven, because clearly Haggis, Krauss, and we, as viewers, develop deep compassion for all involved.
One of the more intriguing elements is how 5B was received among other employees and medical personnel. We hear of a “homosexual hierarchy” and the panic among politicians and doctors about the HIV virus and AIDS. One doctor featured in the film, Dr. Lorraine Day, who advocated that all surgical patients be screened for AIDS, would go on to marry William Dannemeyer, a far-right political extremist, who we hear throughout the film voicing his condemnation of the LGBTQ community.
If 5B preaches to the choir, that is a shame. Released in June - “Pride Month” for the LGBTQ community, the film tells a story that is viably important in understanding the history of the homosexual experience in America. With what feels like a renewed attack on equal rights protections for the LGBTQ community in recent years, some may feel, as Dr. Day does, little to no empathy for the stories presented here.
5B time capsules and memorializes a dark, challenging, and devastating crisis which afflicted millions of people and, as other documentaries like How to Survive a Plague and We Were Here document, the federal government was slow, if not inert, to respond to the crisis. Finally, these brave men and women have a chance to be heard and, in spotlighting them, we find a new slate of heroes properly recognized for the very first time.
CAST & CREW
Documentary Featuring: Alison Moed Paolercio, Cliff Morrison, David Denmark, Mary Magee, Sasha Cuttler, Lorraine Day, Rita Rockett, Hank Plante.
Director: Paul Haggis, Dan Krauss
Release Date: June 14, 2019