"5B" Review: A Time Capsule of Bravery
When the HIV/AIDS first hit the world in 1981it was a concrete death sentence. If you had the disease many people chose to isolate or abandon people with it. So when a team of medical professionals decided to start caring for and comforting people in ward 5B at San Francisco General Hospital, the world took note. 5B tells the story of the brave men and women who put humanity first, from their own mouths.
The film starts with archival footage of gay men and lesbian women dancing together or holding hands. The voices of youth explaining how they’re “coming out of the closet” more prevalently. Just as quickly as those images are shown, we cut to the images of some of the first men who had the “gay cancer” as it was called. No one knew what was going on in the beginning. They just knew that gay men acquired the disease and died within months after.
Rather than viewing 5B as a place that people die, nurses and administrators, such as Alison Moed Paolercio, Cliff Morrison and David Denmark, created a culture of care. Even though, in the beginning, every case was terminal, they focused on the human being in front of them and their needs. They had Sunday brunches, dance parties, and most importantly, touched their patients with no gloves. They were able to meet the basic needs of human beings when they weren’t being met in the past. Thus, they changed the trajectory of how AIDS patients were treated.
One thing they teach you in film school is that the medium has the ability to travel through time and space. Seeing some of the talking heads, now in their 60’s or 70’s juxtaposed with their 20’s and 30’s selves is powerful and otherworldly. Ultimately, we realize that many of the people that we see them assisting in the documentary are no longer alive and haven’t been for decades. This drives home the impact of what they did on 5B. They took huge risks that could have cost them their lives, family relationships, and more.
While the film does a great job of capturing the stories of those who served on 5B, it stuffs tons of human stories into the main thread of the struggle of giving care, service and love during a time of uncertainty around the AIDS epidemic. The talking heads change so often that it becomes a guessing game of who may appear on the screen, remembering their storyline, and piecing things together. It’s a difficult balance to do in a documentary and while the stories are welcomed, the inescapable feeling of redundancy creeps in occasionally.
Ultimately, 5B is an important story that serves as a necessary time capsule. As stated in the documentary, if we don’t remember what happened in the past we’ll repeat it. Fear of the unknown is a repetitive issue in human existence. It can make people do inhumane and evil things. 5B is the perfect reminder of the power of love and what can happen when we put fear aside and seek to care for others.