5B is far from the first documentary to explore the AIDS epidemic, but it is the first to shine a light on one of the lesser known chapters in this disease’s grim history. In its opening scenes, directors Paul Haggis and Dan Krauss immerse us in the early 1980s before the term AIDS was even coined. At the dawn of this health crisis, the press referred to the disease as “gay cancer,” which goes to show just how misinformed people were. About half the nation seemed to assume that casual contact with an AIDS patient could spread the disease. Even hospital staffers took unmercenary precautions, draping themselves in “space suits” to interact with those dying from the syndrome.
As this plague continued to spread across the nation, so did paranoia. In a single ward at San Francisco General Hospital, AIDS patients were given a glimmer of hope in their final hours. 5B became America’s first AIDS ward in 1983. Of course, nobody who was admitted to the Ward 5B unit expected to walk away with a clean bill of health. Back then, AIDS was considered unmanageable and even today there’s no cure for AIDS or HIV. Even though they couldn’t cure their patients, the nurses and caregivers did everything in their power to provide them with the compassion we all deserve.
This was a time when William F. Buckley Jr. actually suggested tattooing people with AIDS on their arms and anuses to keep the disease contained. As ignorance was on the rise, however, the nurses of 5B proved that there was still hope for humanity. This was a judgement-free zone with one priority: to make the patients as comfortable as possible. The nurses went the extra mile by bending some of the rules. As we see in interviews, many members of the LGBT community were disowned by their biological families. So, the nurses let patients define who their true families were and who would sit by their death beds.
The documentary also doesn’t shy away from the fact that these nurses took a huge risk every day they went into work. Simply mishandling a needle could change the entire course of someone’s life. Haggis and Krauss go beyond simply stringing together a series of first-person testimonies. This is an ingeniously structured documentary in which each interview builds off the previous one, amounting to a thoroughly gripping narrative. The most shocking account revolves around a Jane Doe who is accidentally infected with the virus. The way this person’s identity is revealed is a masterstroke of editing, leaving the audience at a loss for words.
Although AIDS isn’t the death sentence it once was, the lessons exemplified in 5B remain just as relevant in today’s world. Now more than ever, it’s easy to cast those in need aside, saying that it’s not our problem. If we all treated others with the same empathy and respect the 5B nurses gave their patients, however, the world would be a much less hopeless place. This isn’t the easiest documentary to watch, but the experience ultimately proves rewarding, uplifting, and life-affirming. Few films that’ve tackled this subject matter have possessed such a human touch.