HEALTH: By including 5B in its documentary competition, the Cannes Festival sublimely uses a historical subject to speak about present-day challenges.

Dieter Wieczorek
Dieter Wieczorek
Wieczorek is a film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: August 2, 2019


Dan Knauss

Dan KraussPaul HaggisHayley PappasRupert MaconickGuru GowrappanBrendan Gaul


It was an outburst of freedom and the beginning of a demand for tolerance when in 1970s San Francisco homosexuals began to come out of hiding. Open gay sexuality entered public places, but soon after, in 1981, something began to change. Word of the «gay cancer» made the rounds. In just a few months, people were being reduced to skin and bones, dying soon after. First limited to homosexuals, drug addicts later became victims as well. The illness was first treated at the ends of hospital corridors; the then fear of transmission, the modes of which nobody knew, forced the opening of a special wing in San Francisco’s General Hospital. There, the victims were treated with mistrust, special suits, masks, and gloves. Cleaning personnel didn’t want to enter their rooms. The victims, requesting medical or hygienic assistance, often waited a long time for an answer.

At this point, some nurses, doctors, and volunteers decided, on their own and at their own risk, to offer more human comfort and personal contact to the patients. Being touched without gloves was an experience that made some of the isolated and abandoned cry. In 5B, Director Dan Krauss portrays this group of human pioneers fears, doubts, and courage, who now speak about their experiences.

From cure to care

Faced with the certain death, the philosophy changed. Not to cure but to care became the task. As it was impossible to save the infected, they should now be accompanied in the best possible way. Visitors, friends, and lovers were not refused. Even pets came to the hospital. They could all stay as long as they wanted. This was a revolution in hospital treatment, which quickly provoked animosity. Often the victims were condemned by their own families, so the small devoted staff rose to the difficult task of comforting the lonely too. The usual boundaries and clinical objectivity needed to be overcome, and simple «love», as one nurse put it, took their place.

This unique way of care was harshly attacked by other professionals. As the modes of the virus’ transmission were finally clarified, some nurses demanded their right to masks and gloves again, speaking about discrimination by not being allowed to wear them. The team was accused of being homosexual sympathisers, and of wasting tax money for medical support.

The illness was first treated at the ends of hospital corridors

The growing number of actual victims, and the much higher number of projected victims, not only caused great stress to the team but also created public hysteria. The infected got kicked out of their jobs and apartments. Sometimes their furniture was burned. Young victims and their children were expelled from schools. People regularly got evicted and risked losing their medical insurance. Public opinion incited a conservative member of Congress to demand tattooing of the ill. All kinds of resentment against homosexuality now found a legitimation in defending public health.

Resistance and defense

As an act of resistance and defence, the concerned nurses and volunteers made public photos of themselves touching the ill, trying to calm down the hysterical hunt. To protect their identities, only the first names of the ill were displayed on hospital bulletin boards.

Public opinion incited a conservative member of Congress to demand tattooing of the ill.

Beyond this, the performer Rita Rockett regularly held a Sunday brunch for the AIDS patients over the course of 18 years, an occasion also for singing and dancing, small moments of joy and laughter. At night she canvassed in bars to raise money. For some families, this was the first common meal in many years.

5B, a film by Dan Knauss

Meanwhile, the staff was confronted with hate messages, caused for example by a photo showing a white nurse sitting on the bed of a black AIDS patient. Things turned worse when one of the chief nurses accidentally stuck herself with a needle and became infected. A criminal case was brought for denying the staff its «right to protection». Salary increases for the concerned staff were requested, without offering a larger budget. So the already overworked team would only get smaller and would lose their capacity to act. Exclusion from US territory was discussed, as was banning immigrants asking for treatment and help.

Specific cases

5B points to specific cases, like a young man holding out in a near-death state just to have the chance to hear a comforting word from his father, dying soon after. Other stories of love and solidarity enrich this documentary of human borderline situations, pointing out how quickly and radically a «civilised» society can become ready to sacrifice victims. Even church members recall their hate statements against homosexuals during funeral processions for AIDS victims.

The caring staff was accused of preferential treatment for AIDS patients and even for reverse discrimination against heterosexuals. Congressman William Dannemeyer attacked AIDS centres for promoting a homosexual lifestyle.

5B, a film by Dan Knauss

But again things changed, and this time for the better. The British Health Minister and people from all over the world came to the ward to find out what they were doing. Even Admiral James Watkins, the chairman of Reagan’s AIDS Commission, admitted how little he had known and even declared himself affected by an ideological virus, which had made him unable to see the facts of the epidemic. In 1996 the first effective medication was produced, and soon after the isolated wards were abandoned. The historic Ward 5B closed in 2003.

Now-empty rooms

One of the last sequences of Dan Krauss’ film is a silent walk through the now-empty rooms, which bear testimony to a remarkable group of personalities united to keep the idea of human solidarity alive. These nurses, doctors, and volunteers stood up when nobody wanted to take a risk. If today we forget what occurred then, the same types of attacks and harassment will happen anew, and have already happened against other «risk groups».

As performer Rita Rockett proclaims: «Not what you say or do, but how you let people feel is the bottom line.»

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