HIV Aids

‘5B’ May Be the Most Visceral and Moving 1980s AIDS Documentary Ever Made

It’s not lightly that I say that, in a long life of watching HIV/AIDS-related TV shows, film, and documentaries, the documentary 5B, named for the 1980s and ’90s-era ward at San Francisco General Hospital that pioneered compassionate care for people dying of AIDS, and which premiered at Cannes last year, may be the most visceral and moving one I’ve ever seen. As someone who moved to New York City at the age of 21 in 1991, in an era of intense AIDS fear but after the initial mystery and shock of the epidemic had subsided, I’ve often yearned to be an adult in the city in the 1980s, if only for a moment, to truly understand what had been experienced by people sometimes only five to 10 years my senior. Watching 5B, which is available on many streaming platforms, I felt like I came as close as I ever would to the visceral sense of terror, grief, public hysteria—and, yes, compassion and love—that gripped New York City, San Francisco, and a few other major cities in the 1980s. That’s partly due to an extraordinary trove of footage from the ward itself that was resurrected and restored for the film.

Recently, I got on the phone and talked with Oakland-based 5B filmmaker Dan Krauss, who was a cinematographer on the recent acclaimed O.J. Simpson documentary, about the process of making the film. I also asked his feelings about the film having been lavishly funded by pharma giant Johnson & Johnson, which has been embroiled in multiple lawsuits the past few years over charges that it deliberately played down the harms of opioid drugs.

Tim Murphy: Hi there, Dan. Thanks for talking with us. This documentary is really extraordinary. How did it come to be?

Dan Krauss: It actually came out of the research-and-development phase of what was intended to be a very different film about contemporary frontline nursing. We were envisioning perhaps following nurses in hotspots around the world, like Haiti, and in the course of that, the research team brought me a couple articles about 5B and asked if I’d ever heard of this AIDS unit at San Francisco General Hospital [SFGH], and I hadn’t. And we started to look into whom we might reach out to and pretty quickly determined that there were a large number of people who were still around. At the same time, we’d just scratched the surface of a large trove of archival material from the ward. So we quickly became excited about telling a story from the 1980s-’90s AIDS era that hadn’t been told before.

TM: Had you seen other AIDS documentaries, such as the 2012 Oscar-nominated How to Survive a Plague?

DK: I’d seen a lot of the canon. The film that spurred me to be a filmmaker was actually [the 1984 documentary] The Times of Harvey Milk. I was concerned that, if we were going to do a film about the AIDS crisis, that it be additive to what was already done, and not repetitive. The AIDS crisis has been exhaustively documented in film.

TM: So then what happened?

DK: We reached out to some of the 12 founding members of the ward, most of whom were still alive. Cliff Morrison was the leader and founder, and Alison Moed was his chief of staff. Nearly everyone was still in the Bay Area, where I grew up and live, so it was easy for me. So we talked to Alison and Cliff, who I think were both really hesitant at first. They didn’t know who the hell we were or what we were trying to do, asking them after 30 years to recount some of the most painful experiences of their lives in front of a camera for total strangers. I think many of them had compartmentalized their experiences, as war veterans do. They often used that metaphor. They had to work up some courage and will. And so we took very careful steps. A lot of my initial questions were about things like where they grew up, trying to create a kernel of conversation that we could build from. Now they’re very proud of the film and the biggest cheerleaders for it that you could ask for. But that’s not how it started.

TM: What was it about this story that you determined hadn’t been told before?

DK: There had never been a focused look inside this ward, about the people who put themselves in harm’s way to care for people whom they knew they couldn’t save. I wanted to understand what drove them. And then again, we found all that great archival material. I didn’t want to do the film unless we could place the audience on the ward and create an immersive experience. The nightmare version of the film would’ve been five black and white photos of the ward that we kept showing over and over.

It was delightful that we discovered a lot of footage of our primary characters. I’d never before had this opportunity to have a kind of time machine where we could cut from a present-day interview to find them as they were 30 years ago.

TM: It’s true that all the footage right from the ward is incredible. It’s very, very transporting to that time and place. How did you find it all?

DK: It was done by Shanti Avirgan, our archival producer, who led a small team that raided the basements of news stations in the Bay Area and recovered tapes that in some cases had not been touched for 30 years. Some had to be baked in an oven to be restored to a playable state, then transferred to a more stable medium. They’d been on their way to becoming magnetic dust.

TM: So how did the rest of the story evolve? Did one person lead to another?

DK: Once we got Alison and Cliff on board, it was much easier to contact some of the other folks, like Rita Rockett [an exuberant, theatrical volunteer who brought the ward patients Sunday brunches]. And then we reached out to Hank Plante, the reporter [who was openly gay, and who covered much of the San Francisco AIDS crisis on local TV news].

TM: There’s so much in-ward footage. Did the patients sign releases for that back in the day?

DK: It was almost if not entirely from news reporting sources. Hank provided us tons of material from his own reporting, a lot of which he’d had the wherewithal to save, because in those days, they’d tape over tape to reuse it. My understanding was that news reporting doesn’t require people on film to sign releases like documentaries do.

TM: But did the news shooters ask the patients’ permission to show them on TV?

DK: I can’t answer that fully, because I wasn’t there, but Hank said that the patients had wanted to be on camera to try to help other people. Sometimes it was like Ringling Brothers circus in there, with all the cameras, reporters asking, “How do you feel?”

TM: So how did you decide to craft the storyline?

DK: It evolved. The only clear directive at the start was to highlight the courage, skill, and compassion of the nurses, but I was always looking for points of conflict, because an hour and a half of people being lauded for their courage can be dry.

TM: And you certainly found your conflict in the story of the formidable Dr. Lorraine Day and other staff who took the hospital to court over the ward’s edict that caregivers not wear dehumanizing hazmat suits while caring for [patients]. That’s a fascinating and painful story.

DK: We didn’t know about Dr. Day when we started. I wasn’t asking the right kinds of questions, and I hadn’t realized the depth of conflict that had occurred on the ward. We discovered that lawsuit on the part of four nurses and realized that a war had been fought and that the stakes were of human compassion.

TM: And then you have the whole storyline about the caregiver who got HIV from a needle stick and efforts to protect their identity amid the public outcry, and I won’t say more about that, so as not to spoil the outcome. What was the biggest challenge about making the film?

DK: The archival piece, because the footage was not catalogued or preserved. Finding that material took months and months, then to restore and license it took eons. The making of the film ended up being extended by months, because we kept finding new batches of material that would completely shift the editing.

TM: Dr. Lorraine Day is a really complex character. She seems to have had no revisionist thinking about the choices she made at that time, speaking out against caregiver contact with the patients.

DK: If anything, she became more entrenched in those views. Granted, it was a very sketchy environment at that time for the caregivers, full of a lot of reasonable fear.

TM: True, you show footage of her performing a surgery, and there is blood absolutely everywhere.

DK: And it’s aerosolized in a surgery setting, too. Nobody was arguing that the work she and others were doing wasn’t fraught [with peril]. The objection came in how she dealt with that and talked about it publicly. But she was also a pioneering woman for doing trauma surgery. I think the meaning of the whole film is found in that conflict.

TM: It’s true, it’s about how that moment found people caught between compassion and fear, and some people had more of one than the other. You have a beautiful story about an aunt who was very religious and anti-gay, who nonetheless ends up caring for her nephew on the ward until his death. Did you ask her if she ever reconsidered her feelings about homosexuality?

DK: Not directly, because I feel like she gets at that herself in the film in a much more elegant way, her line at the end of the film. She has an incredible moment of regret.

TM: Like so many moments in the film, it’s quite heart-wrenching. How does the film seem to be doing?

DK: It had theatrical distribution [in cinemas], which is the holy grail for documentary filmmakers, and then it went on to screening platforms, where its success is a bit hard to gauge. At Cannes, we had a five-minute standing ovation, with an audience filled with tear-streaked faces. That was validating.

TM: What are you working on now?

DK: I’m a bit more in the fictional world now. I had a movie come out after 5B called The Kill Team with Alex Skarsgard, a fictional version of a true story that I was the writer and director on. I’m attached to another fictional film that we’re currently casting.

TM: So I did want to ask you how you feel about the film being commissioned and funded by the pharma giant Johnson & Johnson, which is deeply embroiled in lawsuits alleging that it knowingly furthered the opioid crisis. How did your link to them happen?

DK: They were entertaining pitches about films related to health care and nursing, and we brought them this particular story and they green-lit it quickly. Our one condition was that we have final cut.

TM: But do you think the funding is problematic? Huge companies often like to fund this kind of feel-good community stuff to offset or distract from their massive profits or their corporate misdeeds.

DK: I think the movie stands on its own, so I don’t think it’s problematic.

TM: I’m not talking about the film itself, but the source of the funding.

DK: The film wouldn’t exist otherwise—that’s the way I see it. This is a tricky question for me to answer. I don’t want to—[pauses] I can’t comment on what Johnson & Johnson has or hasn’t done outside of this film. But I know that in the making of this film, they were supportive partners, and for that I’m grateful. I didn’t wrestle with [their funding the film] at night, if that’s your question. Thank goodness at least some companies are throwing money at good things.

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