Fear, Paranoia and Love: a review of 5B

By David Branigan | 13 Feb 20
Courtesy of Queer Screen


Directed by David Haggis and Dan Krauss


5B is an act of cinematic community building cum healing and a vital historical document that links the nascent HIV/AIDS epidemic to now.  Focused primarily on the voices of a handful of nurses from the first dedicated AIDS ward at San Francisco General Hospital, it memorialises the lost while speaking to the power and mutability of acceptance.

Directors Dan Krauss and Paul Haggis artfully construct a narrative from first person straight to camera and archival footage. The film opens in slow-pan muted grimness as one of the nurses revisits the now closed ward and then jump cuts to vibrantly colour saturated images of late ‘70s San Francisco at the height of gay liberation, deliriously sound tracked by Blondie’s Dreaming. This idyll sets up an arc that someone describes as ‘there’s an enemy, and it’s a disease’, and the onset of HIV/AIDS in what is effectively ground zero narrows the films focus to a different type of community.

The institutionalised hysteria that paints the epidemic as a convenient viral closet contextualises the story of how ward 5B invented and evolved a model of care that was scrutinised and challenged from without and within, from facing fear about levels of risk to carers to governmental and media hysteria demanding a quarantine and suggestions that funding for care and research was valorising or propagandising a homosexual lifestyle.

The nurse manager retrospectively notes that ‘I knew there was homophobia in the world, but not among nurses’ and the reams of historic footage allow the filmmakers both several villains and a neat narrative twist, but it’s the move from clinical objectivity to something more like loving care that is the film’s beating heart.

The caregivers become proxy family members and, more importantly, witnesses. The glimpses of patients captured here are often difficult to watch but thrilling and important to see.  Like the recent documentary Killing Patient Zero, a portrait of Gaëtan Dugas , one of the earliest diagnosed patients in North America, 5B is a proof of life and tribe that puts faces to and preserves stories and lives now long gone and ended too soon.

The ‘then and now’ framing also emphasises how scandalously recent this was, and seeing how quickly identity is weaponised by fear mongering has a raft of timely resonances; one of the nurses notes ‘I remember and admire them’, and 5B is a heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful work of preservation and vibrant, essential queer realism.