Cannes 2019: an interview with Dan Krauss

The film 5B, co-directed by Dan Krauss and Paul Haggis, screened in the Official Selection as a Special Screening at this year’s Festival de Cannes. It is the touching, haunting, and inspirational true story of the nurses and caregivers who built the first AIDS ward unit in the United States in the early 1980s. At the height of the hysteria and misinformation that made the newly discovered disease as scary as it was deadly, the men and women of Ward 5B inside San Francisco General Hospital offered comfort and care to their patients, while also dealing with their own personal fears and expectations.

Filmmaker Dan Krauss sat down with E. Nina Rothe to talk about the challenges of getting his subjects to relive the tragic events of the past on camera, what his film’s most current message is, and how he went about finding archival footage to tell this important story.

Q: I was only a teenager in the US when the AIDS epidemic first hit. I remember all the coverage, but I also remember that we didn’t know anything about this new disease. How it spread, with what kind of contact. So to watch this film is incredibly moving because here are these men and women caring for these patients, and they don’t know if and when the virus could also affect them. This film is a great reminder of the power of our humanity. It’s hopeful.
A: It’s funny because I think a lot of people had forgotten how terrifying the disease was in the early days. Because the disease has been largely, at least in the developed world, it has become more of a chronic condition than a death sentence. So the younger generations, they don’t think of AIDS as being even a deadly disease. And to go back to that time, I think even I had forgotten just how terrifying it was when people were not certain how it was being carried. We made a point in the movie of really allowing the audience to experience that fear, from the perspective of the caretakers.

Q: Do you remember a starting point for this film?
A: Interestingly, we had started researching a different film that was related to healthcare and nursing. But in the course of doing that research, I can’t take credit for discovering the story, the research team actually came to me with a couple of clippings and said “Do you know about this ward?” And I’d never heard of it before, I had no idea. I mean, I grew up fifteen miles away from San Francisco General Hospital, I was a ten-year-old kid living very close to where these events took place, and I had no idea, like many, that there was this war raging inside this hospital over caring for these patients. And so we thought we might have something special because we knew the story hadn’t been told quite in this way, at least as a film. And that many people, at least in the San Francisco area, didn’t know that this had happened. And also that many of the nurses were still in the area, and it felt like the right time to tell the story.

Q: What do you think is the film’s best message?
A: AIDS is not considered an urgent health crisis in the United States right now. And this film can serve as a reminder that the fight isn’t over yet. But I also hope that the film isn’t only a reminder of the AIDS crisis, but also serves as a call to arms for the next generations to confront any bigotry or division or fear mongering with the kind of compassion and care that the nurses had. That really transcends the AIDS crisis and is a more global message that I think can be helpful.

Q: I love a quote that says that “a hero is not someone who lacks fear, but someone who acts in spite of their fear.” I think what those nurses did in that ward was exactly this, act in spite of their fears since at the time they did not know what we know today about how the virus is transmitted.
A: I wonder if one of the reasons why the nurses in that ward are actually uncomfortable with the word ‘hero’ is because it implied this is an extraordinary, exceptional act and that perhaps they want it to be more universal — that anyone can do this. I don’t know if in that circumstance I would have had the courage to do it. But I do think it’s a way to activate people.

Q: What was the most challenging aspect of making this film?
A: It’s always a dance when you approach a subject and you want to gain their trust. They are naturally hesitant to give you that trust because, particularly with this story, it’s a very sensitive topic and they’ve locked it away in a safe space. It was traumatizing and it’s difficult to ask people to revisit trauma. It felt very much like I was going into their attic and opening a box that hadn’t been opened for more than three decades, and sitting with them as they opened it. And the memories and the feelings flooded back for the first time. For many of the people, I don’t know if they had really talked about this for many years, and so it was very raw. I was asking a lot of them to open themselves up and make themselves vulnerable emotionally to go into this part of their mind that they had closed off for so many years. That was probably the most challenging part of it, and it is always hard to ask people to re-experience emotions that they deliberately have kept at bay. But I think they all understood that the importance of the story transcended their personal misgivings about how painful it would be to talk about their experiences.

Q: How did you find all this wonderful archival footage? I imagine a lot of it came from one of your subjects, Hank Plante, who as a TV reporter reported on the AIDS crisis relentlessly in the 1980s — but the rest?
A: One of the tragedies we discovered in doing the archival research, we had an amazing archival team that did months and months of painstaking work. But one of the things we discovered in that process is a lot of these news stations would reuse their video tapes. It was a way to save money, so a lot of footage was lost to history, they are just pixels now, in the air. We were very fortunate to discover videotapes in the bottom of bins in the basements of these news stations, some of which had residue which had to be baked off in an oven just to restore it to a playable state, so we’d have one chance to transfer it to another medium. I’m very proud that we rescued some footage that would have been lost to history if we hadn’t had this heroic archival team rummaging through bins.