Hospital Ward ‘5B’ is a heartbreaking and inspirational destination
Directed by: Paul Haggis and Dan Krauss
Starring: Alison Moed Paolercio, Cliff Morrison, David Denmark, Mary Magee, Rita Rockett, Hank Plante, and Dr. Paul Volberding
“5B” – “I was ready, but I was scared.” - Alison Moed Paolercio, Ward 5B nurse manager
In 1981, the AIDS crisis frightened the nation. San Francisco and other U.S. metropolitan centers became ground zero, and this mysterious disease – born from unknown causes - was horribly labeled Gay Cancer.
Out of nowhere, young gay men developed ghastly skin lesions, as the disease pulverized their immune system into dust. Soon after – sometimes within a month – their bodies followed suit.
How is AIDS contracted? How is it spread? Blood transfusions became a known cause for transmission, but varying degrees of more casual contact, including touching, were open questions.
“The director of nursing (at) San Francisco General (Hospital) said, ‘We have to do something,’ and I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.’” – Cliff Morrison, Ward 5B nurse
Despite the risks, San Francisco General Hospital formed Ward 5B in 1983, the first AIDS ward in the country, and a number of healthcare workers elected to face their fears along with those who didn’t have a choice: their patients.
To some, the early 1980s might feel like another lifetime ago, and directors Paul Haggis and Dan Krauss became modern-day historians with their solemn but also vastly inspirational documentary “5B”. They not only found truly remarkable Ward 5B footage from the period, but they also interviewed the men and women who helped form and ran this new humanitarian wing of the hospital.
“You have to get out of the mode that you’re here for curing people and really get into the mode that you’re here to care for people.” – Mary Magee, Ward 5B nurse recites the advice from fellow nurse David Denmark.
With countless patients facing certain death, Magee, Morrison, Paolercio, Denmark, and other nurses stood on the front lines and not only cared for these young men, but sat with and held them as well in a radical approach to hospital care, but one that seemed imperative.
In 2019, knowingly hugging someone with HIV might feel as benign as a simple job interview handshake, but Haggis and Krauss – from the get-go - offer so much dated footage of bedridden, sickly-thin young men who sport looks of either absolute bewilderment or dread, that the filmmakers push us into this time capsule, where confusion and fear are exceedingly real. Anguish is another emotion, especially when the ages – like 23 or 26 - of some patients are randomly revealed…when we least expect it.
Haggis and Krauss also create a surreal duality between the 1980s and today, because Magee, Paolercio, Morrison, Denmark, and Dr. Paul Volberding not only speak about those times in present-day, but we also repeatedly see them in Ward 5B as young people, sans their current gray hair and earned crow’s feet.
In deeply meaningful ways, their 2019 selves become anchors or lifelines for moviegoers, because their seasoned perspectives and reflections on their historic 5B work help arm us a bit when the screen turns back the clock to a very different time. A time when AIDS was not understood, even by the most dedicated Ward 5B workers, who at first didn’t know if they would contract the disease when offering basic medical care.
“So much in life is not what you say or what you do. It’s how you make people feel.” – Rita Rockett, Ward 5B volunteer
In many circles throughout the country, intolerance for AIDS patients and gay communities grew, and “5B” spends some stretches exploring these views. These needed moments offer an accurate framework for the decade, but naturally, the individual stories within the ward are the most affecting and rewarding, and these personal memoirs also deliver a pair of real surprises that raised gasps during the June 12 Phoenix Film Society screening.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that similar inhales, gulps and tears will find their way into a “5B” showing near you. Silence, heartbreak and inspiration, however, might be the prevailing emotions felt, after witnessing these scared souls – both the patients and nurses of Ward 5B – bravely staring into the abyss…together.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008, graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and is a certified Rotten Tomatoes critic. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.