The new documentary 5B, directed by Oscar-nominated documentarian Dan Krauss (The Kill Team) and Oscar-winner Paul Haggis (Crash), is the film we all need in today’s political landscape, even if we don’t know it yet. In an era when more and more people are feeling empowered to take action, it is important to learn from a group of people who did it the right way.
In the film, Krauss and Haggis take a look at the story of San Francisco General Hospital’s 5B ward, which was the first AIDS treatment ward in the world during the 1980’s AIDS crisis. It is truly inspirational to see this group of people standing up for what they believe in despite the opposition they face around them every day.
During the time in which the nurses and caregivers of the San Francisco General Hospital started the 5B ward, not much was known about HIV/AIDS. Paranoia and fear were still very much present in society, and these heroes combatted that with their courage. Now people may look back at the things that these people did and assume that they are just treating their patients with humanity, but it is important to understand that they are the people who set the precedent.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about this documentary is that it manages to not feel cheap in any way. When dealing with a topic as tricky as the AIDS crisis, filmmakers can easily be melodramatic or feel like they are doing nothing more than tear-jerking. Krauss and Haggis instead approach the subject with a sense of earnestness and empathy, making audiences understand the weight of the topic without feeling overwhelming.
Over the course of the film, we get to hear multiple personal stories from the people involved with the ward. Unfortunately, it is impossible to hear from most of the patients directly because the ward started at a time before medicine had advanced enough to manage the HIV virus, but we do get to hear their stories secondhand from some of the nurses that treated them. In this way, the movie feels like a touching tribute to those who lost their lives in this crisis.
The most impactful story in the film is that of “Jane Doe”, the nurse who was infected with the HIV virus because of accidental exposure to a patient’s blood. The reason that her story is the most touching is not that she is “innocent”, as some people at the time would suggest, but because of the sacrifices she made for the greater good. However, this does not steal the spotlight from any of the other patients’ stories discussed in the movie, as they are all heartbreaking.
Also very impressive was the filmmakers’ ability to get across their political commentary without feeling preachy or heavy-handed. On one hand, Krauss and Haggis did make this film to pay respect to the people who lost their lives to AIDS and the people who worked to make them more comfortable in their final days. There is also an underlying message, though, about discrimination that occurred at the time and is still happening now (albeit to a somewhat lesser extent). As a result, these caregivers are portrayed as more than just people who are doing something good — they are also advocates for justice and equality.
Krauss and Haggis tell this story through a combination of archive footage and interviews with the people involved in the story. Thankfully, the filmmakers made the decision to make themselves as invisible as possible, allowing the stories to speak for themselves. This gives the movie a more natural rhythm, as if we are watching these people tell their stories to us directly rather than to a person behind a camera.
5B is a very impressive documentary on many levels. This heartbreaking story, while well-documented, has never been told in a way quite like this. From this film we can learn that, even though the situation might look bad, there is still good in the world.
5B is now playing in theaters.