They say truth is stranger than fiction. It is also harsher. While watching Dylan Mohan Gray’s Fire in the Blood, about the AIDS crisis in Third World nations and the issue of Big Pharma just letting millions die by not availing them cheaper drugs, I couldn’t help but think of the recent sci-fi movie Elysium. That Hollywood blockbuster is about a dystopic future in which Earth has entirely become a planet of poverty while wealthy One Percenters reside in a heavenly space station where every home features a miraculous all-curing machine. It finds entertainment value in an exaggerated allegory for what’s apparently really going on in our world. And documentaries like this make you wonder why we need the made-up versions of actual atrocities.
For Fire in the Blood, the equivalent of Elysium’s curing machine is antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) used to treat HIV/AIDS, the combinations of pills that have been prolonging countless lives since the right “cocktail” was discovered in the 1990s. What the film focuses on is how the majority of patients saved by the medication has been affluent whites in the West, while poor people in the global south, particularly in Africa and the Caribbean, have not had access. The reason, we’re told, is due to the high costs set by drug companies and their immoral profit structures.
Gray’s doc is clear on setting the industry up as an enemy, one that not only denies affordable treatment to the needy but which blocks others from coming to their rescue, as well. And with statistics pointing to about ten million deaths from AIDS in the past decade or so as a result, the film all but calls the pharmaceutical companies the perpetuators of a Holocaust. The word “genocide,” however, is said at least once. As for heroes, Fire in the Blood has those too — various activists and scientists who’ve fought the Big Pharma goliath and have had some victories — yet the spotlight does seem aimed more at the villains in this story.
In chronicling that story, going back to the groundbreaking advent of antiretroviral therapy in 1996, Fire in the Blood is like a sequel to How to Survive a Plague, which concludes with that development. The recent Oscar nominee plays like a medical thriller, and while the newer film isn’t so narrativized it’s easy to see where its like the bigger, more expansive follow-up we expect from a series successor. This is where we follow the plague out to a global impact. It’s also where we are meant to react cerebrally more than emotionally, given how the story is told. How to Survive a Plague made me cry tears of heartbreak and then joy, while Fire in the Blood just made me think, angrily.
One interesting link between Plague and Blood is a recurring character in Bill Clinton. In the former film he’s seen during his campaign for presidency in 1992, provoked into a little debate about the issue of HIV/AIDS by ACT UP member Bob Rafsky. In the latter Clinton is one of the talking heads, relevant to the story for his foundation’s efforts to fight the AIDS pandemic in Africa. Gray’s film notes that the ex-commander-in-chief has been making up for a disappointing level of support to the cause while he was in office, and combined with a look at where George W. Bush’s commendable promises in 2003 fell short because of the pharmaceutical lobby, there’s an implication that these guys have their hands tied in Washington but eventually are capable of making a difference once they leave the White House. (If you want the counterpoint on the Clinton Foundation’s goodwill, though, see the new doc on failed Haiti relief, Fatal Assistance.)
Where the mission in Plague was to speed up the test phase process for drugs that might save lives in the U.S. in particular, a similar feat is at the center of Blood’s historical account, as our heroes look to India and Thailand for low-cost generic alternatives to Big Pharma’s patented, brand-name pills. For years, though, it was illegal to import those cheaper drugs to African nations and other desperate areas where the Western industry had a monopoly on treatment. There’s a fairly happy ending to this film, although it doesn’t feel nearly as triumphant as the victory in Plague, mostly because of Gray’s concentration on information over characters and exposition over affecting, in-the-moment footage.
Narrator William Hurt kicks off the documentary telling us that this is a story about statistics, and that’s not necessarily a bad way to approach this subject matter. It just has a different effect. Gray does still incorporate a few individual, human-interest narratives, although they’re on the sidelines and barely felt for, so they’re pretty much unnecessary. Yet without them, we’d be left with something that’s as visually dull as docs can get, and it’s already an unfortunately questionable film with regards to how wearily uncinematic it is.
One additional point I’ll give Fire in the Blood is for its slightly creative end title card, which features the annoying yet expected call to action notice with a website listing and copy stating that “here’s how to help…” Accompanying these usual and obligatory elements is the statement “help prevent a sequel.” I found that phrasing to be more clever than fits the rest of the doc, but clever all the same. Of course, I’m also hoping there’s not a sequel because it’ll likely be just as drab.