Memory compresses over time to the point at which you barely remember events from when they were unfolding. For instance, most around during World War II but not actually in the shit have experienced so much life since then that their most vivid recollections probably concern the celebratory sigh of relief when that conflict was declared over.
I know that’s how it is for me and another war, recalling the early days when AIDS was known as “gay cancer,” Ronald Reagan’s administration callously treated the epidemic as a joke and there were unwarranted fears of catching the fatal disease from a sneeze.
However, as a straight individual who never stuck a needle in his arm, nor had personally known (let alone had the honor of sharing the final moments with) a sufferer, I must be reminded of those memories because when AIDS and HIV pop up in my consciousness now, I mostly think about how they have become largely manageable. (Praise be.)
So, like the History Channel’s blanket coverage of WWII hopefully reminding us “never again” (despite the rise of neo-Nazism), it’s important that co-directors Paul Haggis and Dan Krauss have come along with the sobering and illuminating documentary 5B to also proclaim, “never again” (despite the rise of the neo-culture war and the demonization of health care for all).
5B takes us back to those days when ground zero for the gay cancer puzzling physicians was San Francisco. Ignorance surrounding the illness and how it spread was so acute then that San Francisco General Hospital staff refused to work around sufferers. Saying that is one thing, but what’s amazing about 5B is the actual footage from the hospital of food trays stacked high outside rooms because no one would pick them up and patients in agonizing pain, writhing and moaning alone in their beds.
Haggis and Krauss also show the Orange County connection to the stoking of the gay cancer—and later AIDS—fears. A prominent stoker was none other than then-Congressman William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton), who at age 89 took his seat next to Satan earlier this summer, as we learned in my colleague Anthony Pignataro’s July 16 obituary “Rest in Hate, William Dannemeyer.”
In the ’80s, Dannemeyer went beyond the general—calling for bans of blood and organ donations by gay men, including those in monogamous relationships; characterizing anti-discrimination laws as attempts to “advance homosexuality”; sponsoring a bill to ban anonymous AIDS testing—to the specific when it came to San Francisco General Hospital. The film shows press conferences at which Dannemeyer, with a couple of those fearful hospital staffers by his side, called for the removal of dying gay men from the facility. In another sequence, the homophobe suggests hospital administrators should be criminally charged for treating gays.
Apologies for the hateful backgrounder, but I believe it is necessary to set up the film’s introduction of its main subjects: the heroic San Francisco General doctors, nurses and other staff members who fought to create Ward 5B so loving care could be given to patients who had been rejected by society, other medical-care professionals and, most sadly of all, their own families.
Before the identification of HIV/AIDS and the knowledge about the intimacy required to contract the disease, these nurses practiced “radical touch,” or the holding of patients’ hands, stroking of their arms and tons of hugs. There was no way to save the poor souls in those days, but a small group of hospital staffers were going to make sure the doomed left this world feeling loved. It breaks your heart to see archival footage of a man who is dwindling to nothing thanking a nurse for being the first person to touch him in a year. Or the aunt who today expresses shame for having abandoned her dying nephew.
It is enlightening—and during these fractured days, inspiring—to witness interviews with some of the quiet heroes today, recalling those bygone moments. They reinforced hope at a time when all hope appeared lost, just as it does now. Maybe we’ll pull through this together yet.
Another local connection to 5B is Jackson Browne, the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer who graduated in 1966 from Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton, where Dannemeyer had moved to seven years before. Browne and Grammy Award nominee Leslie Mendelson co-released “A Human Touch” as the title song to 5B. Browne and Mendelson have been performing the song written by Steve McEwan during a concert tour that included an Aug. 16 stop at the Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa.
Billed as the only documentary to receive a 100 percent “fresh” score on Rotten Tomatoes, 5B was shown in May at Cannes, where it won raves and awards. (Haggis, who also directed the controversial drama and 2006 Best Picture Oscar winner Crash, was removed from Cannes promotional materials because he’d recently been slapped with rape and sexual-harassment allegations that he denies.)
The documentary had a brief June theatrical run in the States, and on Aug. 20, it began an exclusive, one-week engagement on Verizon’s Fios TV. Starting this Tuesday, 5B will be available to stream not only on that platform, but also 1,000 others, including Amazon Video, FandangoNow, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft Movies & TV, Redbox On Demand, Sony Playstation, and VUDU, as well as on-demand via cable providers AT&T U-Verse, Charter, Comcast, Cox, DirecTV, Dish, and Spectrum.
OC Weekly Editor-in-Chief Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the alternative newsweekly’s first calendar editor.