5B is the first film to celebrate the efforts of a group of nurses and health care professionals who defied the fear when AIDS first reared its ugly head in 1983. 5B is the ward at San Francisco General Hospital where touching and physical contact became the norm. Elsewhere victims, who were desperately in pain and covered in lesions, were treated like lepers.
5B is surprisingly upbeat, and compelling. Co-directed by Dan Krauss and Oscar winner Paul Haggis, the film elicits a strong emotional response from viewers and has a clear resonance for America today.
In Cannes, where the film has a special screening in the Official Selection I sat down with Krauss and separately spoke to nurse Guy Vandenberg, who still works at the hospital and is married to ward survivor Steve Williams, who was also in Cannes.
How much input did Paul Haggis have?
DAN KRAUSS: Paul was there from the beginning and fought to make this the best film we could make. He was very involved in the post-production process. He is a master of story and structure. Structurally it’s very complicated.
DAN KRAUSS: Because we intertwine many different threads. We have an over-arching history of AIDS in San Francisco, in America, a sort of political thread and we have these intimate stories that are very specific, stories inside the ward with the caregivers and a couple of patient stories. We were doing this delicate plate-spinning act and that process required a lot of thought to make it feel organic.
Incredibly after all the reporting on the AIDS epidemic this story seems so new and fresh.
DAN KRAUSS: I’m not aware of movies that have been made about the ward and that got us very excited. We realised that a lot of the nurses who were the founding members of the ward still lived in the Bay area and that the ward still existed. We composed a movie that allowed the audience to live inside the ward, so it’s almost like a time capsule. They are transported back to 1983 and I think a lot of people including me have forgotten how terrifying this disease was in the early stages. It was a death sentence. To revisit that moment in history and how we confront that fear now, felt very timely.
You don’t have to have AIDS to be treated like a leper.
DAN KRAUSS: You saw that with the Ebola crisis too. Fear is very powerful. It can be destructive and it can be a powerful motivator and you can see both of those things happening in this film.
It was particularly touching for me as I held and kissed a friend who was hidden away in his parents’ home and was one of the early ones to die.
DAN KRAUSS: I don’t think we realised at the beginning of this movie that it was fundamentally about human contact and we discovered that in the process of talking to everybody. The act of human touch was an act of radical touch and radical empathy and that was what was so astonishing about what these nurses did. Their anger was a very powerful force in their decision to do this care, despite the risks. They were able to transform that anger into human empathy.
The footage of the ward and the era is incredible.
DAN KRAUSS: It was a painstaking process led by a heroic archival team. They combed through the news stations of San Francisco and beyond, in some cases finding tapes that hadn’t been touched for three decades. Many of them had to be restored by baking the tapes in the oven, which somehow allowed them to play once and be transferred to another media and be restored. We also discovered a lot of news stations recorded over their tapes so a lot has been lost. All of that was so crucial to setting the tone of the audience feeling they are there. We had the gift of seeing the people we are interviewing today working on the ward.
The film is releasing soon in US cinemas.
DAN KRAUSS: It opens June 14 and they’re hoping to get it into 400 theatres across the US.
It’s weird to see Johnson & Johnson among the credits.
DAN KRAUSS: Fortunately our interests overlap. They have an interest in health care and nursing because they’re very much involved in that world so they were great allies in the making of this film. They’ve done tremendous research in AIDS too. So this was right in their wheelhouse.
It’s interesting that this big multinational company did that.
DAN KRAUSS: I was very taken with that as well. That said, we had complete editorial control and final cut. No one asked us to change one frame of this film.
Paul Haggis helped there?
DAN KRAUSS: He’s a very powerful guy and was a great champion of doing this film the right way. Along the way we collected all these wonderful allies who are helping us get the film out in ways we never could have imagined.
You came in when the project that was ready to go.
DAN KRAUSS: It was unusual to have a film with such traction. It just felt the right time to tell this story and that’s why people are such ardent supporters of it. It was a story that is both an important reminder of history and a specific chapter in history that needs to be preserved. It also had the value of saying something what we see in the present day and encouraging the younger generation to act with the same kind of companion the nurses did 35 years ago.
It also relates as much to immigrants today.
DAN KRAUSS: Exactly. You see in the 1980s how Reagan proposed a travel ban for people with AIDS coming into the United states and here we are in the year of Trump and there’s a travel ban on Moslems coming into the United States. It’s the same ideology at work, just a different cast of characters. History sometimes repeats itself in scary ways and I think this film in a subtle way is a reminder of that.