The stigmatization of AIDS victims is a shameful part of American history that may be too recent to get the remembrance it deserves. Thank the stars we have documentary filmmakers out there who can ask us to reexamine our history. Co-directors Dan Krauss and Paul Haggis focus their documentary on the heroic nurses and volunteer caregivers of the first AIDS ward in America. They ask us to recognize the humanity of these men and women at a time when there was very little of it. The Regan administration tried to ignore the disease. Doctors wanted to call in "gay cancer." Most Americans didn't want to care and yet these individuals decided to change the perception of the disease.
What may be most remarkable about what the caregivers of 5B did is that, at the time, they didn't know exactly how HIV spread. They had an idea that it was likely through blood but they weren't sure when the ward opened up in a San Francisco hospital in 1983. These men and women had to go and tell their loved ones that they were volunteering to work the ward at a time when the panic surrounding the disease was at an all time high.
The documentary itself is a no-frills affair that combines talking-head interviews with a surprising amount of footage from the early days of the ward. The doctors and nurses there wanted to change the stigma so they agreed to be filmed often. The biggest act of compassion mixed with rebellion was for them to touch their patients with their bare hands. For some of these victims, sentenced to death by AIDS, this was the first time they had human contact since being diagnosed. The footage is incredibly powerful in reminding us how basic, how simple an act of compassion can be.
Kraus and Haggis do a great job of giving these caregivers their just recognition. We hear their stories, including the story of one nurse who contracted HIV while working with patients. We hear about some of the people who died from the disease who impacted the lives of these caregivers. 5B does a wonderful job of putting us there, in the early days of the disease and follows the progress of antiviral drugs alongside the actions of Regan at the time. In what may be the most damning part of the documentary, we hear that 28,000 people died from AIDS before Regan would even mention the disease.
5B is a powerful documentary that highlights the unsung heroes of the early days of the AIDS epidemic. The people of 5B helped change the world's perception of the disease through their willingness to care and do what was right. The film is occasionally scattershot but that is forgiven as the sometimes fractured narrative allows the filmmakers to tell personal stories from the front lines. You leave the film knowing what human compassion looks like. 5B is inspiring, cathartic, and above all it reminds us all of the important role of caregivers in our society.