Two time Oscar winning filmmaker Paul Haggis’s first foray into a non-fictional feature is an insightful and affectionate look at the country’s first ever AIDS Ward : 5B at San Francisco General Hospital. Opened in 1983 not only would it become the busiest of its kind, but more importantly the dedicated nursing staff implemented a new more highly personal and humane level of care which would eventually be adopted nationwide.
Back in ’83 at the beginnings of the epidemic there were so many unknowns about HIV and AIDS that made it not only difficult to treat for staff to treat patients, but it gave rise to widespread fear and panic. Plus it fired the fuel for all the homophobes who now felt empowered to go public with their undisguised hatred.
In those days it was clear that as there was really no medication that could deal with the onslaught of opportunist diseases that HIV caused, that inevitably all the patients would die. Some much quicker than others. As one of the nurses said “It was a wonderful place where you could go to die — but it doesn’t take away from the fact that they died.”
There is no avoiding grabbing a box of kleenex when watching the documentary that Haggis co-directed with two-time Oscar nominee Dan Krauss as this act of remembrance stirs up so many personal memories of loss. However in profiling the unselfish team of nurses who brought such love and joy into the last days of these young dying men doesnt let you forget that in the middle of this seemingly uncontrollable crisis that these people who reminded us all about the real good in this world too.
Haggis/Krauss tell their story with a series of archival footage but more importantly with talking head interviews with some of the original staff including Mary Magee who we eventually discover was the infamous Jane Doe a nurse that became HIV+ after an accident with a needle. Led by Cliff Morrison they tried to give the patients a home to home atmosphere in the Ward and against established procedures they hugged and touched tha patients without using gloves or masks.
They were dealing with so many young men who had been spurned by own parents , many had lost both their jobs and apartments, so the team in 5B became their de-facto family “You had to get out of the mode that you were here for curing people; you were here to care for people,” one of them observed”. They were more than happy to encourage local roller-skating performer Rita Rocket to take over the ward every sunday (for some 18 years) to make a Sunday Brunch.
It wasn’t to say that the 5B nurses weren’t sometime scared for themselves, especially in those very early days when no-one still knew how the virus spread, They just factored that risk into the need for them to do their work. Not so in other parts of the hospital when a few Nurses were insisting in still being able to wear as much protective clothing as possible. They sued the Hospital Board for thir right and lost in a significant ruling that would affect nursing staff everywhere.
President Ronald Reagan may have refused to acknowledge the epidemic for some years, but others didn’t hesitate the politicized the situation to exacerbate the scare mongering at a time when they should have been using their authority/power to help. Also Dr Day the Head of Orthopedic Surgery at the Hospital who described AIDS ‘like a loaded gun under a coat’ and she .couldn’t hold back her scathing attacks on the energies of the 5B Ward team. If you hang on until the final credits you will realise where her hatred is coming from
In a year when the LGBTQ community is focusing so much on how the Stonewall Riots 50 years ago went on to significantly shape our lives. it is also good to remember that its wasn’t all plain sailing after that. For many of us the pain after that from the AIDS crisis will never really go, but as this film shows, it gives us hope that if we keep standing together as a community we can survive and and enjoy being our true selves too