HEALTH: By including 5B in its documentary competition, the Cannes Festival sublimely uses a historical subject to speak about present-day challenges.
Dieter Wieczorek
Wieczorek is a film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: May 31, 2019

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 …

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