Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"5B isn't just a film with an interesting subject, it's a powerfully made, nuanced and thorough piece of work."

For those who grew up afterwards, it's difficult to explain the degree of public panic that surrounded the AIDS epidemic when it first emerged. Even in the late Eighties, trying to explain that HIV was a clumsy virus with poor transmission potential was frequently met with denial and the recitation of tabloid newspaper rumours about how some poor 'innocent' person caught it from a toilet seat or from shaking hands with a man they hadn't realised was gay. Although these notions were, by then, obvious nonsense, in the early days the uncertainty about how HIV could pass from person to person was real, there was no treatment and little was known about its incubation period, so even people with medical training were terrified. It seemed to come out of nowhere, destroying healthy bodies in a matter of months. There was widespread reluctance to let sufferers share wards with other types of patient, or to treat them at all.

In the face of this, one small band of doctors and nursing staff stood firm. They were as frightened as anyone else but they saw vulnerable patients left to die alone without proper care and they wanted to help. So, in San Francisco General, they set up Ward 5B, the first dedicated AIDS ward in the world. At first they wore all-over body protection including masks. They didn't know if the disease could aerosolise. Some of the nurses felt that the masks were getting in the way of communication with the patients, reducing much needed human contact, so they took them off, and that was how the world learned that it couldn't.

The story of Ward 5B is an insight into a kind of heroism that is too rarely celebrated: not sudden, instinctive acts of courage but the will to face unknown dangers on a daily basis for the sake of strangers. Strangers who often became friends, and who - at least to begin with - all died, which itself took an awful toll on the staff's mental health. Staff who were facing social isolation in their downtime because the public were afraid of them, too; and who couldn't turn on the TV without self-appointed guardians of public morality proclaiming that their patients deserved their fate. They coped by bonding as a team, which brought challenges of its own.

With subject matter like this it would be difficult to make a documentary that didn't make an impact, but 5B isn't just a film with an interesting subject, it's a powerfully made, nuanced and thorough piece of work. The story is told by former team members themselves, one of whom guides us briefly through the empty rooms where the ward used to be, and there is a revelation part way through which - especially if you followed reports on the outbreak at the time - is liable to make your jaw hit the floor. The emotional impact of the film is raw but it's not a story about tragedy, despite the awful losses involved. It's a story about survival - about how the team made it through and about how their work contributed to change. How the first treatments for HIV emerged and how hospital standards of care were forever changed in a way that continues to impact the treatment of emerging diseases to this day.

You won't need a medical education to appreciate this film but it never patronise its audience, explaining hospital protocols in a matter of fact way as it explores the issues. Some of those medics who argued at the time that AIDS patients ought to be handled with more caution also get to have their say. There is some focus on the stories of individual patients, and testimony from partners and family members, as well as a recognition of the specific impact on the gay community and the complicated business of dealing with relatives who had conflicted feelings about their loved ones due to the influence of homophobia. A look at the way the media approached the subject reveals the way that medical matters were politicised, with powerful public figures weighing in and making it harder for the staff on the ground to do their jobs.

Anyone considering a career in medicine should watch this film and ask themselves if they could do what the staff of 5B did. Ultimately, this film explains how the radical choice that they made shaped the world in ways that went far beyond what they could have imagined.

Reviewed on: 28 Dec 2019
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The story of the first designated hospital ward for AIDS patients in the US.

Director: Dan Krauss

Year: 2018

Runtime: 94 minutes

Country: US


Cannes 2019

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