The fear of the unknown often causes panic, hostility, and anger. The uncertainty of an outcome is an uneasy feeling. This “fear of the unknown” was on full display when the AIDS crisis came onto the scene in the early 1980s. The new documentary from Paul Haggis and Dan Krauss takes a look at the first ward in the country to deal with the disease, located at San Francisco General Hospital.
At the start of the film, we are introduced to the Castro District in the coastal California city. While nowhere near the acceptance, or level of rights the gay community has today, great strides were being made in San Francisco, and elsewhere across the country. One interviewee states, “It’s not 1954 anymore, it’s 1973.” Just as a “place in society was being carved,” it hit… an unknown disease that came on rapidly and claimed the lives of its victims even faster. Once referred to as a form of cancer, doctors were baffled by what it was. One thing that was for certain… the gay male community was most at risk.
While many were coming down with the symptoms, few knew how to treat it. Even fewer were willing to take the risk and administer care. Was it contagious? Could it be airborne? No one quite knew. Patients were being shunned, isolated, and even refused care. The path to acceptance was quickly fading away, as the fearmongers started to distance themselves from the gay community.
But, with every cloud comes a silver lining. In this case, it was a group of nurses at San Francisco General Hospital that stepped in to volunteer and build the ward that housed only AIDS patients. Ward 5B opened at the end of July, 1983. With much uncertainty, they risked their lives to care for fellow humans in need.
Even as more came to be known about transmission, it wasn’t only the patients being shunned, but the doctors and nurses as well. Through interviews, we learn about the struggles the care staff endured, from receiving hate mail, having to move, losing friends and family, and other unimaginable consequences.
Co-Director Dan Krauss was just 10 years old and living outside San Francisco during this period of time, “The opportunity to share this little-known episode of history now — 35 years later — is an
extraordinary honor.” Haggis and Krauss do a great job of introducing us to those that risked not only their health, but their own personal social lives to step in and offer help at one of the most trying medical times in recent history. While new ground may not be broken in the filmmaking style, it is always good to pay homage to those that deserve it, and remind everyone that fear and hostility isn’t the right answer to a problem.