Review: Fire in the Blood
Fire in the Blood is a documentary about a real-life scandal. It’s about people conspiring to let millions of their fellow humans die for the sake of profit. It’s also about the fight against this, and the brave individuals who took on the might of the large drug companies.
In a series of interviews with calm but intently focused campaigners, the film paints a picture of two worlds. One in the west, where the breakthrough in anti-retroviral drugs meant that AIDS was no longer a death sentence for those diagnosed with it. And one in the developing world; where a slow, agonising death was a certainty and the only medical response was to tell the patients “go home, there’s nothing we can do for you”.
As health professionals such as Peter Mugyenyi point out, these were “avoidable deaths”. The actual production of the necessary drugs is reasonably cheap and if they were sold at affordable prices they could have been shipped to the countries in Africa and Asia that desperately needed them.
The reason this didn’t happen boils down to one word: patents. The large pharmas had a patent on the drugs they produced preventing other companies from making generic versions of the same product. As long as they held the monopoly, they could set the prices. And the prices were so high, only the most prosperous nations could afford them. What this meant, in real terms, was millions of people dying. Avoidable deaths. “Non-stop funerals”. All because the drug companies wanted to maximise their profits.
Even if you are already familiar with the wider story, the response of some of the western AIDS charities is quite startling. Their lack of support for their counterparts in the developing world is far more shocking than the revelation that groups like the WHO were turning a blind eye. It seems like a wave of indifference swept over the Europe and America, from the highest echelons of government through to the smallest of NGOs.
Thankfully, there were those prepared to act. Those such as CIPLA chairman, Yusuf Hamied. CIPLA were one of the few manufacturers of the anti-AIDS drug combination. Mr Hamied’s decision (on humanitarian grounds) to manufacture the drug and sell it at only $800 US dollars worldwide gave a real, tangible method of saving lives to the third world.
Other campaigners like Zackie Achmat also acted as a lightning rod for the issue. Already a world-renowned activist, Zackie Achmat was diagnosed with HIV himself. Yet he refused to take the necessary drugs unless they were made available to everyone in his country by the South African government. Even Nelson Mandela could not sway him!
In William Hurt’s narration the film has a fine, perfunctory audio link and the information about patents and drug combinations is relayed in a commendably clear, straightforward manner. But for a film with such an emotive subject for at its core, Fire in the Blood can feel strangely flat at times.
Whether that’s due to the over reliance on the same techniques (newspaper headlines overlaid on top of images, stills and footage of patients, cuts from interviews) or the slightly saccharine score, Fire in the Blood doesn’t always strike you with its points in the sharpest way possible.
The information being relayed is vital, but the delivery at times makes the film feel like an extended episode of Panorama. Fire’s reliance on simple facts alone to tell a story is a noble aim, but when you have the tools of cinema available to you, it is possible to make your case resonate much deeper with an audience without over-editorialising.
However, through the use of case studies, fact relaying voiceover and on screen graphics, the film makes an eloquent case for the story of AIDS being the great shame of the west. It also renews your faith in the human spirit as the work of the campaigners is shown bearing fruit.
In perhaps the most moving and revealing footage, a man is offered the life saving drug combination and is asked if he will accept treatment. He breaks down for a moment, unable to speak, and then replies “With all my heart”. It’s in these honest, human moments the Fire in the Blood truly burns brightest.
Fire in the Blood is available on DVD 24 March 2014.