‘5B’ Review: A Beacon Of Hope During A Dark Time In Our History
When the AIDS epidemic first began to grip the nation in the late 1970s and early ’80s, doctors and caregivers were not prepared for what was to come. The mysterious disease had an almost 100% fatality rate, and it was first targeted solely at the gay community. An entire class of Americans were swept up in the hysteria and fear, and the press and our politicians did little to assuage that fear. The staff on ward 5B took the challenge head-on.
In San Francisco, the gay community was hit the hardest, and one hospital, San Francisco General, stepped up to offer the best care possible to a disease no one understood. AIDS patients were kept on ward 5B, the subject of the new documentary named after that ward by celebrated documentarian Dan Krauss and Academy Award-winner Paul Haggis (Crash, Casino Royale), and the medical staff, the nurses and doctors who cared for these human beings, finally have their story told.
These caregivers risked their lives to ensure that the patients were treated with dignity and respect, even as many lay dying from a disease that, to this day, still has no cure.
The documentary 5B does an amazing job of highlighting the true heroes here, with interviews and archived footage. Krauss and Haggis also highlight certain key patients as they struggled to survive, all the while dealing with being ostracized from family and friends for their lifestyles and choices.
The doc doesn’t dwell on the causes of the epidemic, nor does it glorify any one person — though it does find a few villains to highlight. The nurses of 5B realized that most of the patients just needed someone to hold their hands and make them feel cared for, and the staff did that. Sadly, it was all they could do, as the public had no interest in solving the AIDS epidemic, with politicians more concerned with blaming the sick, or outright ignoring the dead and dying altogether.
President Ronald Reagan didn’t even publicly use the word “AIDS” until six years after it was first discovered. It was a very shameful time in our nation’s history, and 5B doesn’t ignore that fact. But the true heart of the doc comes from introducing the people who lived it, telling their stories, sharing their thoughts as their friends and community was under attack. These professionals offered the light of hope in those patients’ darkest days.
I came into 5B with the knowledge of hindsight, yet Krauss and Haggis were still able to create the fear and hopelessness that many people felt at the time, and shine the light on the hope that this staff gave the world. At the end of the doc, I had a much deeper respect for the nurses and doctors and volunteers who went above and beyond — and still do today across the world — to offer care for the human being, and not just treat the illness.
The 5B documentary should be watched by anyone wanting to get into the medical field, so the idea of human care is not lost on the current healthcare system that treats patients as customers with something to sell, often at exorbitant prices. This is one of those documentaries that I will not soon forget, if ever, as after a week, it’s still on my mind.
The AIDS epidemic was a shameful time in our nation, and most didn’t even begin to care until the disease breeched the gay community and drug users, and started affecting anyone who came into contact with it, no matter their sexual orientation, cultural status, or political standing. Times may be different now, but the message of 5B is still as poignant now as it was almost 40 years ago. Sometimes, fear is the true disease, and the one most easily cured. The staff on San Francisco General’s 5B knew that, and they proved to be real heroes. This is their story. And it’s a story everyone should see.
The documentary 5B is in select theaters now. Images courtesy of the 5B Film website.
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