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Film Review: “5B”



If there’s anything good to be said about the first few years of the AIDS crisis in San Francisco, it’s that the nurses at San Francisco General Hospital were true heroes. 

In the cryptically titled “5B,” filmmakers Paul Haggis and Don Krauss give us a straight-up, talking heads documentary about the “gay plague” that forced the city’s vibrant, flagrantly gay subculture into fearful defensive mode, snuffing out increasing numbers of lives along the way. San Francisco General Hospital was where many of them went to die. 

The filmmakers build suspense with colorful footage of the city in the 1970s, when being gay was (newly) not only publicly possible and permissible but even celebrated. 

Nurse Cliff Morrison worked at the hospital, and recalls that he saw some of the first victims. “Then I started to see my friends getting sick,” he says, and the fear began to spread. 

Some of the hospital staff, such as Dr. Lorraine Day, chief of pediatric surgery, fomented the fear when she made her own rule that operating room staff be required to wear hazmat suits for surgery. Dr. Day later married AIDS-phobic California Congressman William Dannemeyer, who backed several anti-gay initiatives (which failed). 

But the nurses just went about their work, finally deciding that a special wing for AIDS patients be established. That is the 5B of the film’s title, and it existed because of those nurses. 

Victims in those early days were usually dead within four months of diagnosis, so 5B was a place for care, not cure. Though in those early days, no one knew whether AIDS could be transmitted through touch, the nurses didn’t hesitate gave patients the calming effects of touch or a hug when it seemed needed. 

But the fear continued to increase. Footage of “God Hates Fags” demonstrators at a church where memorial services were being held contrast with footage of Castro denizen Rita Rockett bringing Sunday brunch for all the patients of 5B. She first did it for a friend who was a patient. Her friend died, but she continued to serve Sunday brunch and entertain the patients of 5B for 18 years.  

The filmmakers cheat by withholding information for supposed later, greater effect (such as the identity of a nurse known as “Jane Doe,” the first nurse known to have gotten the HIV virus from a needlestick), but let that go. This film is about the truly heroic nurses of 5B, who were described lovingly by Hank Plante (one of the first openly gay reporters) as “subversive” when he found out they made it a point to be filmed touching their patients. 

Check local listings for theater times and dates. 

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