Fire in the Blood


Features, Film, Review | by — February 13, 2013

by Rebecca Biscuit

This carefully made and effective documentary highlights the role played by pharmaceutical companies in the blocking of low-cost AIDS drugs to millions of the Global South’s poor in the 1990s. Essentially condemning 10 million Africans to death when effective treatment was readily available in the West or through the use of generic (non-branded) ARVs made in Asia, drug companies fought for years to protect their patents, and therefore their profits, in what Fire in The Blood director Dylan Mohan Grey calls ‘the crime of the century’. This is the first film to chart in detail the small group of activists who fought for access to generic AIDS drug in Africa and their successful attainment of affordable treatment for the poor.

The documentary paints a clear heroes –and- villains, David and Goliath picture with a story that is sadly far from fiction. On one side of the battle is the large pharma corporations, with the backing of most Western governments. The film deconstructs the drug companies’ pro-patent arguments with clear facts shared through narration, text and talking head interviews. Facts such as:

84% of new drug research is funded through public money, though the public has no say in what the pharma companies can then charge for those drugs. Only 1.3% of pharma company revenue goes to drug discovery.

Speak to the sweep of anti-corporate public feeling that is prevalent today with the Occupy movements and UK Uncut campaign. Many more truths revealed in the film are bound to inspire anger and recognition.

In the ‘heroes’ corner, the director has gathered a roll call of not only the biggest players in this struggle, but some of the most powerful people of the time. Sharing their first-hand experiences on camera are Bill Clinton, Joseph Stiglitz, Desmond Tutu, Yusuf Hamied and William Haddad, joining activists Peter Mugyenyi and Zackie Achmat to expose the simple fact that, as Hamied says, ‘the whole of Africa was being taken for a ride’.

The characters involved in this fight are charismatic and their stories lend personal drama to a battle dominated by faceless corporations. These personal interviews are essential in focusing the viewer on the detail and truth of the matter. For example, Zackie Achmat, co-founder of Campaign Action Treatment, refused to take AIDS medication until the South African government backed the importation of cheap, generic ARV drugs made in Asia. In the film we see footage of Achmat in the late 90s, looking increasingly frail, and interviews in which he expresses the simple truth ‘we are dying because we are poor’. HIV positive South African judge Edwin Cameron explains he could afford his ARV drugs, though contextualizes the prices charged: ’they took up a third of my judicial salary. In the open market if that price is unreachably high, that’s just too bad. Those people must die’.

The film returns to the same message over and over. The simple truth is that cheap ARV drugs were being made in Asia, but African governments were legally blocked from importing them by patent laws protecting the profits of Western drug companies. That drugs are produced by companies free to seek the largest profit for their products – ignoring any humanitarian consequence –is a perfect example of how morally flawed free market ideology can be.

However, the film doesn’t delve too deep into ideological argument, and the sting of racism evident in the West’s approach to the AIDs crisis is mentioned but never explored. (I think comedian Sarah Silverman said recently that if 10 millions labradoodles in Africa were dying, we would do something about it). The film doesn’t suffer for this lack – these issues in themselves deserve their own handling.

Fire in the Blood culminates in a call to action – this is not a history lesson. We are provided as an audience and now active player in the drama with options as to how you can help campaign for drugs access. The documentary is not just about AIDS. It is about access in general for the poorest and the sickest, and proving that small groups of people can make big changes. Director Mohan Gray has made this argument powerfully. He has also provided , through making this film, a tool for sharing information, creating awareness and hopefully preventing a repeat of this ‘collective failure’.

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