'5B': Film Review | Cannes 2019

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
A moving study in courage and compassion, albeit with some heavy-handed touches.
6/14/2019

Co-directors Dan Krauss and Paul Haggis pay warm tribute to the nurses and volunteers who set up America's first AIDS unit at San Francisco General Hospital during the crisis years.

The ravages of the AIDS crisis, the stigmatization of its victims and the shameful prolonged indifference of the Ronald Reagan government have been widely chronicled in both narrative and nonfiction features. But the heroism of the nurses and volunteer caregivers manning the frontlines is a largely overlooked aspect that's worth remembering. Co-directors Dan Krauss and Paul Haggis set out to do just that in 5B, a stirring assembly of first-person oral history and extensive archival footage that honors the pioneering work carried out in that ward, which opened in 1983 at San Francisco General Hospital in direct response to a state of emergency still being widely ignored at that time.

This is a straightforward, no-frills project built in conventional style around a series of talking-head interviews. Despite a nagging tendency to milk sentiment from wrenching subject matter that requires no manipulation, the doc is notable for its admirably inclusive perspective. It covers both the selfless contributions of people fighting the good fight — gay and straight, men and women, medics and nonprofessionals — as well as the conservative forces who tried to discredit the efforts of 5B staffers to bring dignity and compassion to what at that time was a death sentence. The film will be released theatrically through Verizon distribution arm RYOT in June.

Making up the rules as they went along, the nurses reset the standard boundaries of clinical detachment to make human contact the focus, rejecting the alarmist precaution of hazmat suits prevalent even among medical professionals elsewhere at S.F. General during a time when knowledge of how the infection was spread was still unclear. When one skeletal patient talks about the comfort of feeling another person's hand on his after not being touched for a year, the then-radical nature of 5B's holistic approach really hits home.

Images of handsome young men transformed in a matter of weeks into skin and bones or covered in lesions still pack a powerful emotional wallop even three decades later, when the revolution in antiretroviral drugs has dramatically cut the number of fatalities. It also remains shocking to hear the undisguised homophobia in news reports when cases first started surfacing in 1981, pointing to "the lifestyle of the typical male homosexual that has triggered a rare form of cancer."

That kind of moralistic condemnation existed even within the walls of S.F. General, though it's veiled in commonsense concerns for the professional safety of those treating communicable diseases. This led to a failed lawsuit by a small group of staff with a grievance against the institution's so-called "homosexual hierarchy." What's most remarkable here is that the hospital's former head of orthopedic surgery, Dr. Lorraine Day, goes on record doubling down to this day on her belief in mandatory AIDS testing for all surgical patients, while scoffing at the high regard in which the workers of 5B are held.

In one of a handful of instances in which key information is withheld for calculated emotional effect, the filmmakers spring an end credits reveal that Day is married to former California congressman William Dannemeyer, a longtime opponent of LGBT rights, heard on the attack at various points in the movie. This kind of trick — dialing up the villainy on someone who has done a fine job of it on her own — is not unknown to Haggis, whose fiction features have often employed contrived means to heighten morality drama.

A similar tactic is at work in building suspense around the identity of a female nurse, identified as Jane Doe in incendiary news reports, who contracted HIV through an accidental needlestick; and in the fate of an AIDS patient partnered with one of the 5B nurses. These are the devices of melodrama and they mildly cheapen a film that works best when it sticks to eloquent simplicity, letting archive footage of both the distressing and touching variety speak for itself, along with the emotional testimony of surviving 5B veterans looking back.

There's particularly lovely input from Cliff Morrison, the nurse who galvanized his colleagues into building the special care unit at a time when many hospitals were refusing treatment to AIDS patients; Alison Moed, who relocated from New York to become involved, eventually being appointed supervising nurse of 5B; and performer and activist Rita Rockett, a Castro fixture whose legendary Sunday brunches in the ward continued for 18 years and who received hate mail when she was photographed embracing an AIDS patient during her pregnancy.

Insightful commentary also is provided by Hank Plante, one of the first openly gay American television news reporters, who contextualizes the escalating death toll against the political attacks, employment and health insurance discrimination, fearmongering persecution and the rise in anti-gay hatred that seized on AIDS as justification. Footage of protesters bearing "God Hates Fags" signs outside churches where funerals were being held, while not new to the AIDS documentary canon, remains horrifying.

But as much as 5B is defined by the still-resonating sorrow of so many deaths, and the conflicted feelings of survivors from decimated communities left with few friends their own age, it's also an uplifting film about profound human decency and generosity of spirit. The nurses and volunteers who worked in the ward became surrogate families to patients whose own families often had turned their backs on them — or were too shell-shocked by the double-whammy of learning that their sons were not only gay but also carrying a medical death sentence to be able to provide the emotional support they needed. This warm celebration of those individuals who stepped in to provide care in the absence of a cure feels entirely merited.

Distribution: RYOT
Production companies: Highway 61 Entertainment, in association with UM Studios, Saville Productions, f/8 Filmworks

Directors: Dan Krauss, Paul Haggis
Producers: Rupert Maconick, Paul Haggis, Dan Krauss, Brendan Gaul, Guru Gowrappan, Hayley Pappas
Executive producers: David Moore, Brett Henenberg, Mariana Agathoklis, Cherie Gallarello, Craig Greiwe, Jill Gorecki, Andrea Schrager, Erin Quintana, Daryl Lee
Director of photography: Andrew Eckmann
Music: Justin Melland
Editor: Christopher Dillon
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screening)

93 minutes