By Utpal Borpujari
“If it is true that one death is a tragedy and a million deaths a statistic, then this is the story about statistics. The millions of people in poor countries who died needlessly of AIDS, all giant medicine companies that blocked access to low-cost medicines that could have saved their lives.”
This quote, in the voice of William Hurt, coming with the backdrop of a montage of shots from India and several African nations, sets the mood for Dylan Mohan Gray’s hard-hitting, investigative documentary film Fire in the Blood that chronicles the fight of activists against the refusal of pharma giants like Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline to free the Anti Retro Viral drugs from the patent regime and thus make unpatented, generic, low-cost drugs available to millions of AIDS patients in the developing and least-developed countries.
Narrated by Hollywood actor Hurt, the film chronicles the events in the late 1990s during which activists in Africa, such as leading AIDS physician Peter Mugyenyi from Uganda, fought a tough battle against the pharma giants to free the ARV medicines from their shackles so that the much cheaper versions developed by, for example, Yusuf Hamied-led Indian pharma company Cipla, could be accessed by millions of AIDS patients who could otherwise have died just like those millions lives lost earlier.
It was in 1996 that a combination of three ARVs was found to be successful in treating HIV, suddenly reducing AIDS-related deaths by almost 80 per cent. But thanks to the patent regime that ensured that the costs remained prohibitively high, this life-saving drug cocktail was not accessible to the suffering millions. And thanks again to the patent regime, the cheaper generic version developed by Cipla was not allowed to be accessible to these millions of patients.
From Uganda to Mozambique to South Africa to Thailand to Cambodia to India, the film travels from one country to another to tell a harrowing tale that leaves one frustrated at and seething over the machinations of the pharma giants whose refusal to let the ARV drugs free of the patent regime led to so many deaths. It recreates the tale of the fight against these pharma companies by activists like Mugyenyi, HIV-positive judge of South Africa’s Constitution Court Edwin Cameron, HIV-positive Zackie Achmat of Treatment Action Campaign, journalist Elvis Basudde Kyeyune from east Africa who announced his HIV-positive status publicly, American Intellectual Property activist James P Love and many others through interviews and archival footage in a clinical manner, putting things in perspective.
Gray structures his narrative in a traditional way, with Hurt’s voice over punctuated by visuals of poor AIDS patients, interviews with an array of activists, doctors and leaders like Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Bill Clinton, Joseph Stiglitz, and footage from numerous protest rallies against the pharma giants. Gray apparently developed the idea for the documentary after reading an article in The Economist, and his treatment of the subject too is of reportage style.
In fact, most of the time, the film moves in too much of a matter-of-fact style, and thus making one wonder if a more intimate portrayal of the lives of some of the patients and activists could have helped it develop a strong emotional connect with an average viewer. Most of the time, the film touches the lives of the various protagonists, but does not go beyond giving the basic information about him or her struggle to fight the virus. Perhaps, the problem of the film, showcased in Sundance Film Festival and many other festivals after that, lies in the fact that it takes in too many protagonists, thus not letting it focus on any of them.
But that does not dilute the fact that the rich-in-content and deeply-researched Fire in the Blood is an extremely important film of our times. It’s a film that needs to be viewed by everyone, and more so by doctors, health activists, policy makers and the student community. The first Indian feature-length documentary to get a theatrical release in the US and the UK and also one to have a decent theatrical run when it was released in theatres in some cities across India, the DVD of the film, just out in the Indian market, is worth adding to one’s collection.
(Publisehd in http://www.dearcinema.com; 22-05-2014)