The Bloomberg School of Public Health hosted a screening of 5B, a recently released documentary about the AIDS crisis and the creation of the first dedicated AIDS ward at San Francisco General Hospital on Friday, Sept. 20. The documentary — which received the Grand Prix Award in Entertainment at the Cannes Film Festival — is a gut-wrenching, yet occasionally joyful exploration of the early days of the epidemic and the attempts of the medical staff to provide care to the victims of the disease.
It is a hard film to watch, but the celebration of the nurses and doctors who ran the titular ward is ultimately more than well worth the emotional anguish.
5B’s narrative is shaped almost entirely by the testimony of the nurses and volunteers who worked on what would become the AIDS ward. Through their eyes, director Dan Krauss traces the evolution of the epidemic from the establishment of Ward 5B, to the nationwide panic over the disease and the early attempts to provide care, to the eventual development of antiretroviral treatments that signaled the end of the initial crisis.
The interviews with the hospital staff (many of whom are gay men) hit harder than almost anything else in the film, as they clearly sacrificed so much in order to provide care for patients who were almost certainly doomed. Watching them recall the individuals they had to watch die was devastating, and the documentary did not pull any punches when it came to reliving those experiences.
Fortunately, the film also makes sure to center the narrative around the men and women who were directly affected by the disease.
The interviews with the staff are interspersed with footage filmed during the epidemic, and Krauss does not shy away from depicting the horrific effects of the disease.
He repeatedly returned to one young man in particular and paired his gradual decline with his attempts to reconcile with his family, a truly devastating through-line.
Understandably, there weren’t many interviews with survivors, but the few that were featured emphasize the horror of the diagnosis and the fear that one’s life could be over at any moment.
Particularly poignant was the interview with ‘Jane Doe,’ a nurse on the ward who contracted HIV while providing care to a patient. Her story emphasized the hospital staff’s sacrifices and profound compassion for providing treatment despite the risks.
5B also examines the negative public response to the disease and the stigma against those who were affected by it, most prominently through interviews with Dr. Lorraine Day, a surgeon at the hospital who demanded strict testing for HIV and was openly critical of the ward’s decision to minimize the use of protective gear once they learned how the disease is spread.
However, though Day did have the time to defend her arguments, she definitely received a fair amount of criticism from both the filmmakers and the rest of the hospital staff.
Outside of the hospital, the film details the public’s fear of HIV and the overwhelming backlash towards anyone whose diagnosis became public knowledge.
Again, the film does not spare the audience any of the pain that those who were HIV+ faced, and it was all the more affecting for it.
That’s not to say that the film’s entire outlook was depressingly negative. There were plenty of small moments of joy throughout the film, like the interview with Rita Rockett, a performer who hosted Sunday brunches on the ward for over a decade.
The horror of the AIDS crisis is contrasted with the overwhelming compassion of the hospital staff at almost every stage of the narrative, and that balance keeps 5B from becoming a miserable slog.
Even as it mourns those who lost their lives and critiques the power structures that did nothing to help them, it reminds us of how far the treatment has come, and that the diagnosis is no longer a death sentence — that there is so much more room for hope.
All in all, 5B is a powerful examination of the AIDS crisis and the attempts (or lack thereof) to deal with such a profoundly overwhelming and horrific disease.
By centering itself around the people who witnessed all of the destruction first-hand, the film was able to tell some truly powerful stories about both the dead and the survivors, and it ultimately looked past the disease to the focus on the resilience and compassion that appeared in its wake.