Dan Krauss’ deeply moving documentary tells the story of 5B, the AIDS ward established in San Francisco General Hospital in 1983. Featuring a wealth of archive material, mainly television reports, and interviews with doctors, nurses and activists recalling their experiences, 5B is a stark, sometimes hopeful reminder of the nightmare that was the AIDS crisis and the compassion of those caregivers.
As one of the largest LGBT communities in the United States, San Francisco General became overwhelmed by patients in the early 1980s. So little was known about what was initially dubbed “gay cancer” that doctors and nurses were forced to resign themselves to the idea that they couldn’t save these people, they could only care for them before they died. Before Ward 5B opened, hospital staff were instructed not to touch patients with their bare hands or breathe the same air as them for fear of contamination, and wore full protective suits and masks. As the epidemic worsened, AIDS patients and gay and bisexual men were increasingly ostracised, even within relatively liberal San Francisco. Some nurses refused to care for their patients, and took their case to court, citing labour laws. A particularly harrowing piece of archive footage features a seriously ill, emaciated patient saying that he hasn’t been touched by a bare hand in over a year.
The 5B ward was a trailblazing attempt to offer compassionate, humane care to those who society had deemed degenerates who had brought this disease on themselves. Doctors and nurses were encouraged to personally bond with their patients beyond conventional boundaries. Most importantly, they were told to touch them with bare hands while treating them and to comfort them, hugging them and holding their hands. At the time, doctors were only making an educated guess that AIDS couldn’t be transmitted via skin contact, and so to touch them was an act of bravery as well as basic human kindness. There are moments of joy here, but these unusually close bonds naturally made the loss of the patients very traumatic for the staff. Hearing them recount their memories of those who died is profoundly upsetting, particularly the story of a twenty-three-year-old patient named Shane who craved the approval of his homophobic father before he passed away.
5B largely achieves the difficult balance between telling personal stories and acknowledging the overarching narrative of the AIDS crisis in the United States. While it perhaps leans a little heavily on sentimentality at times and doesn’t address ongoing AIDS activism, it provides compelling insight into a period of LGBT and American history that too often is ignored. The film is punctuated by footage of the ward today, disused since 2003 but still preserved. It stands as a memorial to those who died, and a tribute to the doctors and nurses of 5B who cared for them.
by Laura Venning
Laura Venning is a Film Studies MA student from London. She’s particularly interested in female directors and Australian and New Zealand cinema. Her favourite films include A Matter of Life and Death, The Piano, Picnic at Hanging Rock and Cléo from 5 to 7. You can find her on twitter at @laura_venning