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    Inspiring Documentary Chronicles the SF AIDS Ward 5B

    By Gary Kramer–

    The compassionate documentary 5B is named for the first AIDS ward that opened on July 25, 1983, at San Francisco General Hospital. This film, which opened at 500 theaters nationwide earlier this month and is available on demand, recounts the experiences of various nurses, doctors and patients through candid, moving interviews about the fears, tragedies and occasional triumphs that took place in the ward during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Directors Paul Haggis and Dan Krauss also lay bare the hatred and homophobia of the time, when some doctors and nurses at the hospital fought against care and protection for AIDS patients, stirring the media, politics and even labor issues.

    The film begins in the 1970s, when gay men and women in San Francisco were experiencing sexual freedom. Of course, everything changed in 1981 when the first AIDS cases were reported. Suddenly, hospitals like SF General were being overwhelmed with patients suffering from a disease that was too new to understand and made most folks afraid to treat them. To care for an AIDS patient in the early days was considered “dirty nursing,” according to one interviewee.

    Doctors and nurses would don “spacesuits” so as not to risk infection. Moreover, most patients with AIDS were marginalized or ostracized, and treated with disgust or disgrace. Many would not receive care until the last minute because no one knew how the disease could be spread, and the risk of infection was too great a concern.

    However, a team of nurses, including Cliff Morrison, David Denmark, Mary Magee, Sasha Cuttler and Guy Vandenberg, led by Alison Moed Paolercio, along with Dr. Paul Volberding, started a “unique experiment in medical care” at SF General. They created a standard of care in an AIDS ward by caring for patients whom they could not cure. They touched the men and women who needed to feel human contact when no one would treat them. These doctors and nurses were allowed to, as one interviewee says, “Share the intimate experience of their dying.”

    The staff in 5B did some radical things. They let patients define who was family, and even permitted animals to be brought—well, smuggled—into the ward on occasion. The emotions these moments generate are empowering and heartfelt, especially in light of the fact that the partners of patients were usually denied visitation rights. Moreover, parents of the patients’ families often rejected their children for being gay or contracting AIDS. In one of the most poignant sections of the film, the estranged father of a patient is encouraged to tell his dying son how much he loves him to allow him to die with dignity.

    As positive as these efforts were, however, there was much fear-mongering as well as some nasty infighting within the hospital. Nurses concerned about infection through needle sticks—one nurse, who famously became infected that way, is discussed in the film—did not want to treat people with AIDS. They took their case to the California Division of Labor Standards. Likewise, Dr. Lorraine Day, an orthopedic surgeon, campaigned for protections insisting that AIDS patients be tested and/or divulge their condition before she operated on them. Dr. Day’s interviews are particularly infuriating because of the homophobia she spouts. Audiences may be prompted to boo and hiss whenever she appears on screen.

    Another villain that the film presents is President Ronald Reagan, whose lack of support for the LGBT community is his legacy. A key point is made about how the national budget earmarked for AIDS research was smaller than what the city of San Francisco itself allocated.

    5B does feature some upbeat moments, such as scenes of Rita Rockett, who came to 5B as a volunteer to feed and entertain the patients. Likewise, out gay local TV reporter Hank Plante has some very interesting observations about covering the epidemic. He found the courage of people with AIDS to go on the air and tell their stories to help others cope inspiring.

    Haggis and Krauss also provide some remarkable footage of the caregivers and patients on the ward. There are some difficult scenes of medicine being administered, or dead bodies being wrapped up and carried out, but these powerful images are necessary—a reminder of the daily and weekly experiences in the ward. When one interviewee describes the epidemic surging to overwhelming proportions, the magnitude of their powerlessness is duly felt.

    But the toll AIDS took on both the gay community and on the hospital’s doctors and nurses comes across clearly. When there are reports of protease inhibitors that are able to treat the disease, and the film reveals that some people with AIDS are surviving, 5B is optimistic, but signals that the epidemic is not yet over.
    This documentary is ultimately life-affirming, showing the resilience of these unsung heroes committed to both a cause and a community, and their efforts to maintain dignity and care above all.

    © 2019 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer


    Veteran Journalist Hank Plante Discusses 5B and Covering HIV/AIDS News During the Epidemic’s Height

    In a recent phone conversation with me for the San Francisco Bay Times, Emmy Award-winning reporter Hank Plante spoke about the documentary 5B.

    Gary M. Kramer: How did you get involved in 5B?

    Hank Plante: I got a call out of the blue about a year and a half ago from Dan Krauss, the director, to ask if I wanted to be involved. I did. I wanted to pay tribute to the nurses. The hard part about being a reporter is looking for people to interview and I often called up San Francisco General and asked if there was someone I could talk to. I owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

    Gary M. Kramer: What did it mean to be out on TV back in the ’80s and ’90s?

    Hank Plante: It worked in my favor. I’m really grateful that by the time AIDS came along, I was out. And I knew my craft, so I was ready to cover this right there in San Francisco, which was ground zero for the epidemic. We had more cases per capita than anywhere else. I was glad I’d taken care of that part of my life [coming out] by the time I was doing this reporting. There were people at my own station who thought we were putting too many stories on AIDS on air, so there was resistance, but my managers saw it as a compelling story and a public service. We had an obligation to cover this story. 

    Gary M. Kramer: How often did you cover the epidemic at the height of the crisis?

    Hank Plante

    Hank Plante: Daily. San Francisco General was the backbone of my reporting. That’s where the science was, and the patients were. But I also went to Washington, D.C., and to international AIDS conferences in Montreal and Stockholm.

    Gary M. Kramer: Did you ever feel at risk in your work in the ward?

    Hank Plante: No. The nurses were sending a clear message by hugging and holding people and cleaning them. I took my cue from them and I went out of my way to show that on camera there was nothing to be afraid of.

    Gary M. Kramer: How were you able to separate your professional work and your personal life? Covering the crisis must have taken a psychological toll on you!

    Hank Plante: It’s a very good question. There were times at SF General where I would have to go out in the hallway and compose myself. These were my brothers and sisters being affected. It did get to me, but I had a job to do and we don’t cry on camera, so I had to get it together and do the job. It was hard to separate that. On the other hand, covering AIDS was a good way for me to channel my grief and anger. I loved chasing bad guys down hallways and asking government officials, “Why aren’t you doing more?” It was a way to feel less powerless. We all felt powerless before the good medications came along.

    Gary M. Kramer: You speak eloquently in the film about the stories of AIDS patients inspiring you with their courage. Can you talk about what made good journalism?

    Hank Plante: Because they made the stories human. There are many times where I would come to work in the morning and scramble to find a story—someone to interview, not just a doctor or a nurse, but a person with AIDS—and get them on the phone. I’m on the air at 5. I’ve got to move fast. I’d get a number and say, “I’m with Channel 5 and can I come over now?” More often than not they’d say yes. I’m grateful. They didn’t look good. Their bosses and family and landlords would see it. But they wanted to tell people how not to get the disease. I’m not exaggerating when I say I love them for it then and now.

    Gary M. Kramer: Your news coverage appears in 5B, which is great. How much footage did you contribute to the film?

    Hank Plante: This was a stroke of luck. I knew that [AIDS] was going to get big. It was obvious. We’d see the cases growing exponentially in San Francisco and elsewhere. So, I started to save my stories on AIDS—not all, but ones I was particularly proud of. I transferred them to disc because videotape disintegrates. When Dan Kraus contacted me, I gave him three DVDs [of footage]. I am so glad I saved them! A lot of what you see in the movie is my work. It is gratifying to have my work come back to life again in this wonderful film.

    Gary M. Kramer: The crisis is not over. How do you think films like 5B continue to advocate for AIDS awareness and education?

    Hank Plante: We’re in good shape with HIV as far as medication in this country. But there are communities of color and places in the rest of the world that are suffering. One of the reasons the film is important is that it puts AIDS back in public consciousness. For most papers, it’s not a story anymore. I’m hoping the film reminds people this epidemic is not over. We have to keep on the ball about it.

    Gary M. Kramer: You went to Cannes with 5B. What was that experience like?

    Hank Plante: That was one of the greatest experiences of my life. It was unbelievable. To walk the red carpet with the nurses and the celebrities who gave us publicity was just wonderful. And then to get a 4-minute standing ovation—in Cannes, they will boo a film if they don’t like it. When I stood up and I saw the audience, a lot of them had been, or were, crying. I cried my eyes out even though I had seen the film before. It was very gratifying.

    © 2019 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer