While “How to Survive a Plague” and “We Were Here” have commendably essayed the U.S. end of the AIDS crisis, the devastation the disease has wrought in the developing world is a topic that has long merited a documentary of equivalent substance. Enter “Fire in the Blood,” a basically constructed but rivetingly researched examination of the global fight for affordable antiretroviral therapy against Western pharamaceutical companies, whose restrictive patent laws amount to a death sentence for millions of Third World HIV/AIDS patients. Impassioned, persuasive film won’t have trouble spreading its essential message across the fest circuit and beyond.
First-time helmer Dylan Mohan Gray’s film had its world premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest in summer 2012 and opens theatrically in Blighty on Feb. 22, but an appearance in Sundance’s World Cinema documentary competish should generate more far-reaching international interest in an Indian production with wholly universal appeal. The familiar presence of President Clinton and Desmond Tutu in the pic’s broad assembly of talking heads, meanwhile, further draws audience attention to a cause that hardly wants for credence.
Gray, who serves as his own editor, proceeds in largely linear, matter-of-fact fashion, first establishing the prevalence and rapid spread of HIV infection in sub-Saharan Africa and the global south, with the AIDS epidemic estimated in 2001 to be claiming 8,000 lives a day. The advent of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) in 1996 slashed fatality rates in the West, but the $40-a-tablet treatment remained a lifeline almost entirely unreachable to sufferers in Africa and India — until pioneering Indian pharmaceutical manufacturer Cipla, headed by humanitarian scientist Yusuf Hamied, developed a low-cost generic drug that had Pfizer and other Western giants panicking over their profits.
What follows is a compellingly knotty, frequently angry account of a still-ensuing battle whereby these companies, often abetted by American and European governments, have exerted patent monopolies to prevent distribution of cheaper alternative medicines — and how, after a mid-2000s breakthrough that led to a 1,000% increase in African patients receiving treatment by 2012, the door looks ominously likely to close again at the behest of the World Trade Organization.
Though the film comprehensively details the political and economic subtleties of what it declares “the crime of the century,” its narrative remains primarily a human-focused one, highlighting the stories of selected steadfast victims, as well as the heroic movers and shakers in the struggle. Those include Hamied, intellectual property expert James Love and, most movingly, South African AIDS activist Zackie Achmat, who boycotted his own treatment until it was made readily available to his countrymen. Gray skillfully brings the film to a conflicted closing note of triumph and foreboding, actively inviting viewers to join a cause still very much under threat.
Content is king in this unpretentious package, though the heavy narration by Gray himself represents a slight debit; the more dulcet tones of a celebrity sympathizer might have bolstered commercial prospects for a pic that deserves to galvanize auds.