A contender for the most opaque, off-putting title of the year, 5B is in fact one of the most difficult and moving documentaries of 2019 so far. The name refers to what we’re told is the first dedicated hospital ward for AIDS patients, established in 1983 at San Francisco General Hospital.
The film, co-directed by A-list writer/director Paul Haggis (Crash) and documentarian/cinematographer Dan Krauss (The Kill Team), is a straightforward work told in chronological order. It begins with San Francisco gay liberation just before the AIDS crisis, then traces the terror and fearmongering of the epidemic’s early years. The suffering and the dying — mostly young gay men — were shunned by families and neighbors and treated as toxic by terrified health care workers swathed in masks, gowns and gloves.
At the time of the creation of the 5B ward, AIDS was indeed a death sentence, and a contingent of compassionate physicians and nurses at the hospital — many of them still around, vividly recalling those days in frank interviews — decided the least they could do was to provide a safe, compassionate space to die. A determined corps of nurses volunteered for 5B, choosing to brave the risks in order to offer humane care, including the warm touch of an ungloved hand and friendly faces not covered by masks.
The film does a fine job of explaining how daring and revolutionary this approach was at the time, contrasting 5B with a small group of other nurses (seen in archival footage) who took the hospital to labor court to demand the right to use masks and gloves whenever they felt the need. (They were supported by a female surgeon who’s interviewed on camera and no less bitter 30-plus years later.)
As is standard in such recent-but-distant documentaries, a few detailed case studies stand in for the hundreds or thousands of people whose stories are lost to history. And that tactic, when skillfully deployed — as it is here — still works to humanize the history. In this case, it even includes a surprise twist toward the end.
For those too young to remember those days, the movie provides a mesmerizing and disturbing history lesson — if they have the gumption for it. For those who remember the AIDS crisis, it’s worth reliving some soul-splitting feelings in the early going, because the remarkable work these nurses did becomes as comforting to viewers today as it was to their patients at the time.
Starts Sept. 27 at Grail Moviehouse