Take note: you will hear the title 5B again, likely around Oscar season.
Co-directed by Oscar-winner Paul Haggis (Crash—and we can forgive him after watching this) and two-time Oscar nominee Dan Krauss (Extremis, The Kill Team), 5B reveals the history of the eponymous medical ward at San Francisco General Hospital. It opened in 1983 as the first ward in the world for people with AIDS.
The doc profiles the medical team who worked inward 5B through the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic. Harrowing, infuriating and deeply moving all at the same time, it ranks as one of the most important documentaries about AIDS ever made, and commemorates some of the bravest heroes of the medical community. (Theatrical and On Demand release dates are pending.)
We snagged a chat with co-director Dan Krauss just ahead of the premiere at the Castro Theater to chat about the film, heroism, fear, and the power of compassion.
How did the subject of ward 5B first come to your attention?
It literally did come to me in the sense that we were researching a variety of topics when my two trusty researchers discovered this little-known story about the ward at San Francisco General. So, I have to admit, initially, I was cautious because there has been such great work done over the past three or so decades about the AIDS epidemic. I was surprised that there hadn’t been a film that focused on the ward being the first AIDS ward in the world. I envisioned a story that lived entirely within the walls of San Francisco General. As we started to research events starting in 1983 and beyond, we realized what a kind of poetic microcosm the ward was for the AIDS crisis and beyond. We started to envision a film that existed inside the ward—an experiential ground account starting from the early days of the AIDS crisis all the way to the closing of the ward in 2003.
So your researchers—were you researching HIV/AIDS in general?
No. We were casting a much broader net looking for subjects to develop. It’s just one of those odd twists of fate that the researchers found an amazing story ten miles away from my house that I’d never heard of, and that very few people knew of. Certainly people in circles of AIDS activism and healthcare knew, but, as you can see from watching the film, there was a staggering amount of drama and poignant memories that had yet to be fully explored. Once in a while you receive a gift from the documentary gods. This, certainly, is one of those occasions.
How did you get hooked up with Paul Haggis?
Well it was his name that secured the financing.
He was there in the early days and my commercial agent said “we want to connect the two of you,” because Paul had never directed a documentary before. It was through him they made this pairing.
Awesome. What was your own personal experience with HIV going into this film? Did you know anyone [during the crisis] that had been diagnosed?
I’m 45 and I grew up in the Bay Area, so I mean, I have fragments of memories. I remember the climate of fear during that time. I remember it feeling—even though it was taking place close to where I lived, I grew up in Berkeley—it somehow also felt distant. I didn’t have intimate contact with that community. I do remember in middle school I had a teacher who, I didn’t know at the time, was gay. I didn’t know at the time he’d contracted HIV. But I remember him dying suddenly, and nobody wanted to talk about it. It was very mysterious. We were only 13 at the time, and this was back in the 80s when talking about things like who’s gay and who’s not, or who has HIV was verboten. I didn’t know until years later that he’d died of HIV.
Ward 5B nurse Mary Magee
Oh wow. Is this the first time Mary Mcgee has gone on camera to discuss (being Jane Doe, a nurse who acquired HIV from an on-the-job needle stick)?
No, I believe she has. She’s done some work in the realm of needle disposal safety, so she has courageously participated in some outreach efforts. I don’t know that she’s told her story in this intimate a way before. She’s certainly come out as a survivor of a needle stick episode and lobbied for safety measures. But it was a huge moment for us to locate her and get her to agree to be part of this movie. Her story, apart from being emotionally shattering, speaks to the real, concrete risk these nurses assumed by working in the ward.
Were your subjects reluctant to go on camera?
I think they were apprehensive about returning to a place that they had stored in a little emotional box and stored a shelf. In fact, I’ve described the process of talking to them as the same feeling when one opens a box that has been sealed for 30 years, where everything is preserved and yet, you have a feeling it hasn’t been touched for a very long time. Speaking to the nurses and volunteers I had the distinct feeling that some of them probably hadn’t talked about this or revisited it since the events took place. A lot of them spoke in the same terms—I’ve also done a film about soldiers in Afghanistan, and the overlap of language is astonishing.
I think a lot of the nurses and staff members are a lot like veterans who have gone to war because they compartmentalize the emotions and resist visiting them because they are so painful. It’s a coping mechanism. I’m grateful to them for being courageous and willing to open that piece of them to me and to everyone who sees the film. They understand that the value of it out in the world supersedes their own personal discomfort.
They probably understand that better than anyone.
That’s true. You can’t underestimate how difficult it is to overcome that emotional barrier and pull themselves back into that space after you’ve done so much work to put it aside. It did take some long discussions, and the research team was instrumental in being a part of those discussions. Ultimately, once a few of them agreed to do it, the rest sensed that something special was happening here and wanted to be part of it.
You know, nobody was eager to do it. They’re humble—they’re all very humble. Nobody wants to take credit. They’re very selfless in that way. And this, again, is the same experience talking to war veterans—they don’t think of themselves as heroes, they think of themselves as fulfilling their duty, their obligation, that they’re part of something greater than themselves.
Were there stories you had to leave out for time?
Typically, when you make a film like this, you interview far more people than you are able to accommodate in the film.
There are always difficult moments where you have to explain to someone that you’ve spoken to that they didn’t make the cut. I was anticipating that in the film because we interviewed 15 or so people. I’m fairly confident—I really hope I’m not wrong—that we did not cut out any interviews. We used all the interview subjects, and that’s the first I’ve done that. They were all just such amazing people that bring character to the movie. They all bring vital perspectives. They all compliment each other in an incredible way. We couldn’t bear the thought of not having them participate in the movie.
The movie is an infuriating film, not because of the filmmaking technique, but because of the subject matter. I wept during the scene with Allison Paolercio looking at the ledger of all the names of patients who had died.
When you’re working over an extended period on a subject as heavy as this how do you keep going?
That’s a fantastic question. It’s funny, the last film I did about doctors dealing with end-of-life cases in a hospital. Before that, I did a film about soldiers committing atrocities overseas. I think, at this point, people probably have an impression of me as a filmmaker wearing all black and sipping a latte in the corner reading dark poetry. Really, I’m a happy, well-adjusted guy with a couple kids and a great wife and cute little dog. Doing work like this that goes to very difficult places makes you cherish everything that is wonderful about being alive. It also teaches you about your own values: what you care about, what makes you uniquely human. In the case of this film, I have to say, this is the least dark film I’ve ever done.
That may not be saying anything given my body of work. This film features actual, real-life heroes and they provide me as much as the death and bigotry bring me down, the model of tolerance and compassion that the nurses display far outweighs that for me. One thing that I’m very proud of in the movie—and I hope this is true for you—there are also moments of laughter.
These people are funny. They have a gift of language that allows them to put some of the absurdity of these events in a humorous context. It’s partly a coping mechanism, it’s partly a gift to the people privileged enough to listen to them. That’s important. I’m really proud that the film can both drive you down into the abyss of bigotry and hate and darkness and also lift you up with the humor that they show and the grace with which they take on these challenges.
You’re talking about real heroes here. Real heroes don’t just do something great, they inspire other people to do something great. That’s the beauty of it.
They deliberately inspire. One of my favorite scenes in the film is where they talk about making conscious displays of touching other people. The notion of human touch as radical, political activism—that was really stirring, and really interesting. And of course, one of the laugh-out-loud moments in the film is when Hank Plante [out-gay San Francisco news reporter who covered the AIDS crisis] says “nurses are subversive. I had no idea they were using me like that!”
You know, any time a camera came into the ward, they would make a big display of touching patients with bare hands because they knew they were being recorded. They knew people would see it. They were very clever in that way. These were nurses who were not only great, courageous caregivers, they were pissed off activists. And this was a way to do something.
You’ve mentioned several times your last documentary, The Kill Team. It is a work of empathy and rage at a moment where America failed itself. What pulls you to these kinds of stories?
I always say that I love complicated stories. I don’t like easy stories. I like stories with questions, sometimes questions that don’t have clear answers. In the case of this film, and all my previous films, there’s kind of a muddledness—a lack of moral clarity that always provokes interesting questions. Of course in this film, there’s more moral clarity than in some of the others. Clearly, it’s the right thing to take care of these patients, but the question of how to—rightly—protect the medical workers is an interesting one.
Even though there’s a lot of debate and discussion and emotion around the way those questions were brought forward by Dr. Day [Dr. Lorraine Day, the surgeon who notoriously advocated for extra protective gear for medical employees to protect against transmission of HIV and mandatory HIV testing for all hospital patients], I think the fact that these nurses were facing, in the early days, a real dilemma about providing the care they wanted to provide, and not expose themselves and others to undue risk. Because they were working in the dark—they didn’t fully understand the disease. That is where the courage comes in–they were making decisions without the facts.
And let it be said that Dr. Day’s initial concerns about not knowing how the disease is transmitted, about not having tests for HIV, they weren’t totally out of line at the time.
I think that’s right. In the film, we show the kind of work that she does [orthopedic surgery] and we were lucky to get access to some of the CBS 16mm film that was shot in the ward, some of which was Dr. Day performing surgery. You can see just how much blood there is in her work, and it’s being splattered, and it’s being aerosolized, and it’s all over the doctors and nurses in that room. You can understand the sense of fear that, perhaps, they felt when not much was known about the disease. I think the problem [was] the way the emotions were stirred by the way some of those hospital employees mixed a legitimate concern about safety with what was, I think, a kind of moralizing perspective on the patients themselves, that they had brought this on themselves with their promiscuity, or by not being circumspect in the choices they made in their own lives. That’s where things crossed over from a clinical, scientific realm to a moral realm, and the emotions became very hot.
There are people in the film who do start passing moral judgment, but you’re also sympathetic to their position to some degree. We’re living in this time of a total lack of empathy in our politics, in our social discourse and especially from our nation’s leadership. What messages of hope did you find in speaking with your subjects? These people have amazing empathy. How do we learn the source of that?
I wish I knew the answer. That’s the hope of the film—to inspire in others the kind of selfless compassion that we see nurses in the ward practicing 30 years ago. The strange irony of making this film is the eerie resonance with what we saw take place 30 years ago with the world that we’re living in right now in 2018 America. It’s no coincidence that we have a clip of Ronald Reagan talking about a travel ban on people being infected with the disease. If you replace ‘HIV patient’ with ‘Muslim’ or “immigrant,” and it seems like no time at all has passed. History is, in a very frightening way, repeating itself. And that is the warning bell that some of our subjects are sounding in this movie. This is not the filmmakers trying to spread a message, it’s the film subjects themselves noting this overlap of history and sending us both a warning about the danger of that, and also providing a model of how to address it—with grace, humility, courage, tolerance, compassion. And by the way, these nurses, first of all: this is not about gay nurses protecting their own…
No, not at all.
A lot of them were hetero. They were male and female. They were different of all different persuasions, ethnicities, political viewpoints. The work they were doing transcended all those possible divisions. And they knew that. And they understand the importance of that. They understood also—whether it was conscious or unconscious—that real courage is showing compassion and tolerance in the face of fear.
I think that is the most unique of human values, one that we need to cling to like mad today.