In 1983, two years after the AIDS epidemic broke out in America, a group of nurses at San Francisco General Hospital established a ward to treat gay men who’d contracted the disease with the kind of dignity they couldn’t find elsewhere. While the government and many other health care providers saw AIDS as a moral disgrace, these medical professionals stepped in to provide radical compassion.
Their work is chronicled in the new documentary “5B,” which opens in limited release on Friday. Using archival footage from inside the ward and interviews with caregivers and survivors, directors Dan Krauss and Paul Haggis examine the early AIDS landscape from the vantage point of those who were quietly rebelling against the nation’s homophobia. Other HIV-related documentaries, like 2012’s “How to Survive a Plague,” revolve around the activists who generated attention by staging loud protests. “5B” shows a side of the crisis that’s been less documented. (Full disclosure: The film is distributed by Verizon Media, HuffPost’s parent company.)
Ahead of the movie’s release, Krauss talked to HuffPost about the incredible footage he uncovered, the rich history that unfolded inside the walls of San Francisco General and why “5B” is relevant today.
How did this project first crystallize for you?
We were actually researching ideas for other films when the research team stumbled across a news piece that was about the ward, and brought it to me and said, “This story hasn’t been told before. We think there might be something here.” Indeed, as we started to look further into the history of the ward, we discovered that there were a number of people who were instrumental in the founding of the ward who were still around and that the story of the ward itself hadn’t really been told in a focused way, certainly not in a documentary.
We had hints that there was a lot of filming that had been done during the ’80s on the ward. As we started to put these pieces together, we began to envision a film that could put viewers in the halls of Ward 5B in the early ’80s during the terrifying early days of the AIDS crisis. We felt an eerie sense of resonance with the events that occurred 35 years ago and the kind of events that we see happening in the world today.
What had you been working on that led you to this particular news item?
Just prior to this film, I had done a film about end-of-life decision-making in a public hospital, so I had just come off doing a film that was broadly in the topic area of health care, and so that’s why we were sort of pushing to find stories in this space.
More than that, though, my particular interest is in subjects who are caught in dilemmas and who are forced to make difficult, impossible choices. This film spoke to me because we’re talking about a decision that these nurses face early on. You have to remember, in the very early days of the AIDS crisis, not much was known about how the disease was transmitted, so the decision to go into these wards and treat these patients was not without some significant risk. I think the question of how much you’re willing to risk, what you’re potentially willing to sacrifice in order to provide compassionate care to other human beings, is a fascinating moral question, and that sort of fit into the broader body of my work.
What struck you most about the caregivers who bucked the norm and embraced the 5B patients?
These nurses knew that AIDS, at this time, was a death sentence, so their mission was not to save these patients. Their mission was simply to provide human care, contact and compassion. I’m not sure, if faced with that decision, it would be as clear for me as it was for these nurses, who were clearly very courageous and driven to provide the care that they knew they had to provide. I think what this film does is put the viewer in the subjective space of these nurses who were faced with these excruciating life-and-death decisions. How do you make that decision, when you know you can’t save your patients and you may be indeed risking your own safety, your own life, to provide care? In retrospect, it feels like an easy decision, but I think in the moment it was a very, very difficult decision to make.
Absolutely. What was it like to comb through what appears to be a wealth of archival footage?
It was on the shoulders of the archival research team, and our archival producer, Shanti Avirgan, was heroically combing through the basements of news stations in the Bay Area and beyond to find old videotapes, some of which hadn’t been touched in over three decades. There were tapes that had been so deteriorated by time that they had to be restored by being baked in an oven. I’m not sure how baking a tape in an oven can restore it to playable condition. I think it had something to do with cooking off the residue that had gathered on the magnetic tape, but it allows you an opportunity to transfer the tape, one time, to a more stable medium. And so I’m very proud to say that I think we rescued a lot of tapes from oblivion, from being forgotten to history ― all credit to our archival team that really turned over every rock, looking for every scrap of videotape that existed on the ward.
Sadly, one thing we discovered is that a lot of news stations in those days would reuse tapes, so a lot of the original footage is now just magnetic dust because it had been taped over, and the material on the tapes just doesn’t exist anymore. There were enough that were salvaged, and actually, [TV reporter] Hank Plante, who was featured in the film, understood the significance of the moment, probably more than others, and saved a lot of his own tapes, so that was also very helpful. [“60 Minutes”] had done some beautiful filming in 16 millimeter on the ward that we were able to access. That was really crucial material. The process of finding that archival material was one of the most arduous and excruciating, painstaking processes of the whole production. It took the better part of a year.
In perusing the footage that you saw and doing any other research this film required, at what point did you know exactly what your story would be? Usually, a documentarian latches onto a piece of footage or a particular angle that forms his or her thesis. Was there a moment like that for you?
Yes, there was. It was when I was speaking with Cliff Morrison, who founded the ward. He relayed an anecdote that’s in the film about allowing cameras to come in and instructing his staff to be photographed and filmed touching other patients. It was this moment where I realized it was the act of human touch that was an act of radical activism. They were allowing themselves ― and, in fact, encouraging themselves ― to be filmed touching other patients so that people around the world would see that it was OK, that it was safe, that providing care to AIDS patients was necessary and human.
The notion that touching another human being, both physically and metaphorically, is the most quintessential human act, and one that kind of defines us as a species in a way ― not to sound overly grandiose, but I think that’s kind of what that moment meant to me, and I think that’s what helped the film transcend the time and the specificity of the AIDS crisis. This is a film that, yes, it’s about AIDS and it’s about the people who were managing the crisis in the early days of the epidemic, but it’s also about human compassion and confronting bigotry and bias with grace and love and compassion.
You tracked down folks who are not, for the most part, public figures and who are now, at this point, 20 or 30 years removed from this moment in history. What was it like meeting them?
Well, they were understandably hesitant at first for a couple of reasons. One is that I think they’re very uncomfortable being celebrated as heroes. They don’t see themselves as heroes. They don’t want to be acknowledged or put on a pedestal in that way.
I think also that, like veterans of a war, they had compartmentalized the trauma of this time in their lives, and they were somewhat reticent to revisit it, especially with someone they didn’t know. I was a complete stranger coming out of the blue, 35 years after the events of this film, and asking them to go back in time to a very painful episode of their lives.
I felt like, with many of them, it was almost like the experience of going into an attic and opening a box that hadn’t been touched for 35 years. Inside, the memories had been preserved. They had been put away somewhere else, but they had been preserved, and I felt very privileged to be sitting with them as they talked about these things for what felt like the first time for many of them. The memories were still very raw and very fresh, again because they had been sort of stowed away. You can see it in the film, the rawness that they felt reengaging these memories and feelings from the early 1980s. It was quite a thing to be in the room with them as they were reexperiencing that.
How did you decide what role people outside the ward would play in the film? Lorraine Day, a chief of surgery at the hospital and outspoken homophobe, is positioned as a sort of villain, as is Ronald Reagan, understandably.
We wanted to keep the focus on the ward and the experiences of the nurses and the staff and the volunteers that served on the ward. Everything in the film is seen from the vantage point of our characters. Anything that was omniscient or outside their purview, we didn’t really feature in any kind of extensive way. Ronald Reagan’s in the film because everyone was aware of Ronald Reagan, what he was saying or not saying. Hank Plante, in particular, mentioned that he sat in front of Reagan when he mentioned the word “AIDS” for the first time, so there was a justification for Reagan being featured because we were seeing him from the perspective of our characters. The same goes for Dr. Day and some of the other public figures.
One thing that was really surprising, as we moved forward in our research and production, was just how much conflict was taking place in the halls of San Francisco General during this time. When I first began the film, I thought it might be more a portrait celebrating these courageous nurses and volunteers, which it is, of course. But also, along the way, we discovered that they were in a fight. This was a street fight to preserve what they felt was a real threat to human dignity, and there were very powerful people who were opposed to what they were trying to carry out.
One of those was the chief of orthopedic surgery at the hospital, who was not an insignificant character in that world at all. She was a real threat to everything that they had built. Also, we felt like she represented a segment of America that is not a fringe viewpoint at all. In some parts of America, she represents a mainstream viewpoint. I think it’s important to acknowledge that the battle they were facing in the early 1980s is in some ways the same battle that a lot of Americans are engaged in today, and that’s the fight for compassion and dignity and respect, and fighting against the forces of division and bigotry and bias.
How would you characterize your interactions with Dr. Day?
She was very guarded at first, but I think she was eager to respond. She was eager to have her viewpoint represented, so she was actually feisty and energetic and very passionate about what she wanted to get across. From our perspective, I was interested in finding a part of her argument that actually was valid. In other words, the idea that AIDS was dangerous and that the people that are working directly with those patients were put at risk, I think, was a legitimate fear.
Of course, where she went with that was the source of a lot of pain and perhaps unnecessary complications, but I think, to the extent that she represented the fear that a lot of people felt at that time, there was a real reason to include that voice. My interactions with her were sort of trying to really get at the heart of that fear. The deeper I dug, of course, the more fraught and complicated it became because I think some of her moral judgment of the behavior of members of the gay community became intertwined with her medical opinions, and that’s where things got messy.
That’s a sharp way of putting it. There’s a touching and devastating moment toward the end of the film where one of the nurses from the ward is sifting through a death log ― pages and pages of victims’ names in a ledger. Was that book just sitting at the hospital in some kind of archive?
When we were doing our research, we discovered the book. The San Francisco Public Library actually has a collection of artifacts from the AIDS era and quite a bit from the ward itself. One of the artifacts that they had on file was what I believe they called the Red Book, and it was the book that you see featured in the film that has the names of the patients who were on the ward who died.
We asked [nurse] Alison Moed if she would go with us to the library. She hadn’t seen this book since she worked on the ward in the 1980s, and the librarian brought it out. I was actually filming that, so I was behind the camera, and almost instantly it was like she had been transported back 35 years. The names inside of it were handwritten, as you see in the film, and so it’s very tangible. Holding that book in your hand, for her, I think, was an incredibly visceral moment.
To what degree did “How to Survive a Plague” and other AIDS documentaries inform this film?
As a documentary filmmaker, I’m keenly aware of the body of work that has been done about the AIDS epidemic. To be quite honest, when this story was first brought to my attention, my first response was there’s not much room left in the documentary camp to do another really great story about the AIDS epidemic. There’s been such magnificent work by so many filmmakers that I respect already. One thing that was important to us was to be absolutely sure that we were telling a story that no one had told before and that had blatant meaning.
Paul Haggis co-directed this movie with you, and it’s been reported that his name was scrubbed from press materials at the Cannes Film Festival premiere. Given the conversation surrounding his sexual misconduct allegations, can you speak a bit about his involvement?
I mean, I don’t really know so much about the conversation with Paul in the world, but I can tell you that he was there from the beginning and did a lot of work to try to get this film made in the best possible way. He really pushed for us to have the resources we needed to make this film as strong as it could be, and he feels passionately about the message of the film. I mean, I can’t speak for him really beyond that. But I know that he has a lot of love and admiration, as we all do, for the staff and volunteers of the ward, and he was very eager to have this film put out in the world, and shares my hope that people will take meaning from the story in their own lives, individually.
This interview has been edited and condensed.