In March two new documentaries focusing on the AIDS epidemic from very different angles will be joining the BFFS Booking Scheme courtesy of Network Releasing. The first, Fire in the Blood, addresses the culpability of western governments and pharmaceutical companies in preventing cheap AIDS medicines from reaching those suffering from the disease in poorer countries. The second, How to Survive a Plague, charts the work of two US based protest groups who tackled political and social prejudices against AIDS sufferers and successfully fought to change government policy and to lower the prices of vital drugs.
Fire in the Blood | Dylan Mohan Gray | India | 87 min
Available to screen from 24 March 2014
Gray’s devastating film details the entirely avoidable consequences of Western pharmaceutical companies’ fervent battles to protect and control patents for their drugs. Although Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART), introduced in 1997, had drastically cut fatality rates in the US; at $40 per tablet it was far too expensive for those suffering in places like sub-Saharan Africa. In 2001 the Indian drug company Cipla introduced its own medication at a fraction of the cost of the American companies. For the first time affordable AIDS medication was available in poorer countries.
But Western pharmaceutical companies like Pfiser were outraged at the threat to their profits. Although the Doha declaration, which allowed poorer countries to ignore patent laws in the interests of public health, had been signed in 2001 these companies were able, with the support of Western governments, to block the import of cheaper alternative drugs and to maintain a monopoly.
Gray’s film outlines how although 84% of funding for drugs research comes from public bodies, drug companies use the argument that patents need to be protected so that they can recoup their R&D costs. This argument is frequently accepted and supported by governments, consequently restricting access to drugs for those who need them. Fire in the Blood reports on the millions of people who have died as a result of this policy, while also highlighting the work of those seeking to overturn these rules. It’s a startling film that highlights the human cost of protecting profits and permitting monopolies. It champions successes, in particular those of Cipla, but reminds us that the fight for fair access to medication is far from over and that new challenges are constantly arising.
How to Survive a Plague | David France | USA | 110 min
Available to screen from 31 March 2014
France has described his documentary about the early years of ACT-UP, and offshoot organisation TAG, not as an AIDS documentary but as a ‘story of disenfranchised outsiders surmounting the insurmountable’. Though it doesn’t shirk away from depicting the tragic and painful effects of the AIDS epidemic in the states in the 1980’s the doc’s main focus is on the heroic efforts of activists to achieve a greater national response to the epidemic. The group predominantly consisted of those diagnosed with HIV or living with AIDS and were fighting for their own survival.
In 1989 members of ACT-UP stormed the New York Stock Exchange to protest against the extortionate price set by Burroughs Wellcome for the drug AZT. Within days the price was dropped by nearly 40%. Treatment Action Group (TAG) was formed by members of ACT-UP in 1992 and set about working to accelerate research into the treatment of AIDS and the development of new drugs. One of the founding members of TAG was Peter Staley a stock broker who had been hiding his sexual orientation from his largely homophobic co-workers. After being diagnosed with AIDS he was alerted to the work of ACT-UP and after seeing the success of their Wall Street protest Staley was inspired and quit his job to work full time with ACT-UP and, later, TAG. Within a few years later Staley and TAG had helped get several new drugs approved for use in widespread treatments.
France’s documentary makes use of never before seen footage often filmed by members of the groups immersing the viewer right in the middle of the action. Universally acclaimed and Academy Award nominated, How to Survive A Plague is a immensely powerful and rousing documentary.