by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday September 23, 2019


Paul Haggis and Dan Krauss turn their lens on a little-known — but deeply impactful — aspect of the AIDS crisis with their documentary "5B."

The title refers to the ward — located on the fifth floor of San Francisco General Hospital — that was the first in the world to be dedicated to the care of patients with AIDS. The ward's staff were there voluntarily, angered and appalled by the way that hospital workers treated — or, more to the point, refused to treat — patients living with the disease, which at the time was still terrifying and mysterious, known as the "gay cancer" because it seemed to afflict gay men predominantly.

This, of course, made the medical condition ripe for exploitation fear-mongers and homophobe, who promoted the idea that AIDS was a "punishment" meted out to a population whose sexual practices and proclivities made them deserving. While the doctors and nurses of Ward 5B bravely shed layers of insulating, isolating protective gear and dared to touch the patients in their care, opportunists were busily exploiting the plague to ramp up the already-intense anti-gay sentiment. Even as the facts around AIDS emerged — it is caused by a virus, and that virus is not transmitted through casual contact — the general population was responding with rage and fear to those in their midst afflicted with AIDS, including hemophilic children who contracted it through blood transfusions.

The ugliness of the world outside - with politicians pressing for gays to be to be "quarantined" (one suspects concentration camps were more what was on their minds, and the epidemic was merely an excuse) and for AIDS patients to be forcibly tattooed — had a way of seeping through the cracks even in the welcoming oasis of 5B, but the staff pushed back against the tide. Even when staff at their own hospital attacked them — nurses and surgeons over issues of testing, confidentiality, and the far-too-excessive precautions of wearing medical "space suits" — 5B remained a place of compassion and holistic care, where life partners were honored and patients afforded the healing dignity of human contact.

The standard of care pioneered in the world's first AIDS ward eventually transformed medical practice itself. Haggis and Krauss interview many of those who were on the ground floor of this sea change — including one prominent surgeon who starts off posing what sounds like reasonable questions but ends up spouting jaw-dropping hate rhetoric — but the most memorable interview subject is the aunt of one of the ward's most popular patients, a young man in his 20s. The aunt starts off parroting the words of many religious people who reach for the Bible to justify their antipathy toward LGBTQs but then shows how her religious beliefs (as contrary as they might seem to the spirit of her professed faith) coexist with a loving nature. It's a revealing, moving testimony that reveals how faith-based bigotry, as damaging as it is to those subjected to it, also causes anguish for those caught up in it. This rounds out and brings nuance to a project that might otherwise have boiled down to ossified arguments between those who served their fellow human beings with courage and those who clung to small-mindedness, carping about the media attention and the federal funds that the ward got — the ward that, to be sure, was doing the work others in the hospital didn't want to do.

If you lived through the 1980s, this will be another in a long line of potentially triggering films that take a hard look at the health crisis that was AIDS back then, and the cynical, stone-hearted responses that far too many leaders, neighbors, pastors, and colleagues summoned up. That said, this is also an affirming, even healing, film, and should not be missed on account of its subject matter. In these times especially, "5B" is a reminder of the best of who we are — and why our faith, and the courage of our convictions, matters.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.