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“It was a wonderful place where you could go to die — but it doesn’t take away from the fact that they died.” This is how one interviewee describes 5B, the trailblazing San Francisco hospital ward that pioneered a more humane method of nursing AIDS sufferers during the epidemic’s paranoid 1980s zenith, affording terminal patients the care, understanding and even affection often denied them in a bigoted outside world. It’s a quote that sums up the approach of Dan Krauss and Paul Haggis’s straight-for-the-tear-ducts documentary “5B,” which seeks first-hand inspiration and optimism amid the wreckage of an unavoidably bleak chapter in recent American history. Interviewing nurses, survivors and even one of the ward’s most viciously homophobic detractors to evoke the frenzied us-against-them mentality that once defined a now-manageable disease, it’s conventional, occasionally maudlin docmaking that nonetheless grips the heart exactly when it needs to.
Set to hit U.S. theaters on June 14 through Verizon Media outlet Ryot — following a canny Stateside premiere on the opening night of Los Angeles Pride — “5B” will doubtless find an especially large and receptive audience on streaming platforms. Cinematically, it may be best remembered as the first nonfiction directing credit for Haggis, albeit shared with more seasoned docmaker Krauss (a two-time Oscar nominee for short subjects). For the “Crash” helmer, it’s less of a departure than you might think: Never one to shy away from either blunt-force feeling or well-wrangled viewer manipulation, he’s in his element with a slick, audience-minded doc that, on several occasions, times and withholds key revelations for surprise effect and maximum emotional payoff.
A somewhat perfunctory, Blondie-scored introduction offers a precis of the gay liberation movement of the 1970s, which saw San Francisco become America’s go-to destination for out-and-proud living. With numerous other documentaries having already covered this terrain, it’s unsurprising to see Krauss and Haggis rushing through it, along with brief establishing notes on how the disease initially referred to as “gay cancer” was first detected and reported back in the last days of disco. “5B’s” less familiar narrative begins in earnest in 1983, with the founding of a dedicated AIDS unit in San Francisco General Hospital, spearheaded by nurse Cliff Morrison. It was a landmark innovation at a time when many healthcare professionals across the country were loath to treat AIDS patients, in an industry still rife with reckless misconceptions over how the disease was spread. (One haunting image stands out from the film’s pile of archive material: a hospital warning sign reading “Caution: Biological Hazard — AIDS.”)
Morrison and a number of his ward colleagues appear as present-day talking heads, reflecting on the unorthodox methods that made 5B a safe haven for victimized patients spurned by other facilities, or even their own families. “You had to get out of the mode that you were here for curing people; you were here to care for people,” one observes — and thus did the staff endeavor to make the ward a comforting home away from home for its residents, with a more informal, intimate bedside manner than was standard elsewhere in the hospital. Archive video shows flashes of jolly ward parties, while ebullient entertainer Rita Rockett recalls her days as 5B’s rollerskating cheerleader of sorts, as her morale-boosting Sunday brunches for patients became the stuff of local legend.
Yet not everyone was on board with the humane, up-with-people approach of Morrison and his colleagues — many of them in the LGBT community themselves — as other doctors and nurses in the hospital and beyond complained of a “homosexual hierarchy,” accusing the 5B staff of preferential treatment for AIDS patients and insufficient safety measures. The film’s more downbeat flip side covers the ramifications of this institutional homophobia, and yields much of the most fascinating content here. Central to matters is the headline-making case of Mary Magee, long known to the media only as “Jane Doe,” a 5B nurse who contracted HIV after an accidental needlestick, exacerbating a nervous national wave of discriminatory care policy — to the point where 56% of the polled American public supported quarantining AIDS patients on a separate island. (“If it had been Santa Catalina, I’d have said yes,” quips one survivor wryly.)
Somewhat dubiously, the filmmakers suspend the disclosure of Magee’s identity until late in the proceedings, also dangling the fate of another participating AIDS patient as a kind of narrative curveball: There’s enough sincerely moving material in “5B” that it hardly needs to resort to such contrived misdirection. Still, the film’s most significant surprise may be the platform it grants the story’s clear villain: Dr. Lorraine Day, former chief of orthopedic surgery at San Francisco, whose high-profile lobbying for mandatory AIDS testing on all surgical patients made her something of a figurehead for homophobic fearmongers across America, not least when she famously referred to the disease as “a loaded gun under a coat.” Unrepentant before Haggis and Krauss’s camera, she’s an enduring critic of 5B’s practices 30 years on: “What is it they supposedly did that was so fantastic?” she smirks.
The film is content to let its own archive footage — in addition to the testimony of its living interview subjects — answer that question, while essentially having Day incriminate herself with her multiple bigoted statements. (We don’t even get into her history of Holocaust denial.) Elsewhere, “5B” is less inclined toward understatement, not least with regard to the thick piano strains of Justin Melland’s score, as well as a gluey closing-credits ballad by Leslie Mendelson and Jackson Browne (“Reaching out for some connection/Or maybe just their own reflection”) that leaves no sentiment to chance. That Haggis and Krauss find said sentiment all the same is a testament to their subject: In “5B,” the human spirit is bigger than hate and Hallmark alike.