When co-director Janet Tobias was working on a documentary project about the AIDS vaccine, she scheduled an appointment with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony
When co-director Janet Tobias was working on a documentary project about the AIDS vaccine, she scheduled an appointment with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci. During their conversation, Tobias was struck by how fascinating the scientist’s life was, and asked him if he would be interested in sitting for a documentary about his own life. Fauci agreed, and shortly afterwards the COVID pandemic began.
“I think it was really important that he had already consented to doing the film before COVID, because he didn’t have very much time when COVID started,” Tobias told Variety.
Tobias and co-director John Hoffman spoke to Variety’s Katcy Stephan for “Doc Dreams” presented by National Geographic series. During the conversation, the two discussed working during the pandemic, addressing the criticisms Fauci has faced during his career and depicting the PTSD the immunologist revealed he struggles with to this day.
Although “Fauci” is a sympathetic depiction of its title subject, it doesn’t shy away from looking at criticism the public has had for Fauci over the course of his time in politics, particularly in regards to the AIDS crisis in the ’80s. While working with the government to help find a cure during the AIDS epidemic, he also became a focus for activists who felt that the government wasn’t doing enough to help victims or communicate with the public.
Hoffman, who helped run the AIDS clinic at New York Hospital during the height of the crisis, said that while making this film, they didn’t want to parallel the criticism Fauci received for the AIDS epidemic with the criticism he received during the COVID pandemic, particularly from people who disagreed with the handling of mask mandates. The documentarians made sure to include several voices of survivors and activists who felt their concerns were being largely dismissed by the government, and they elaborated about their relationship with Fauci.
“The most difficult thing in making this film was finding where there was a legitimate argument that could be made about comparing and contrasting these times,” Hoffman said. “They’re not parallel. The way the American public reacted to Dr. Fauci during COVID was completely different than the criticism he was going through with HIV/AIDS. His ability to reach across the divide, and forge a working and productive relationship, and how that eluded him today, that’s one of the most important aspects of the film.”
During the film, Fauci opens up about post-traumatic stress disorder from the death of a former patient. According to Tobias and Hoffman, when the moment happened, they expected him to ask for it to not be included in the documentary, but he didn’t. The moment marked a shift in their relationships with the subject, as it allowed them to delve into more personal subject matter with him.
“We had never had a conversation with Dr. Fauci going into these interviews about how they needed to be different than the hundreds, thousands of other interviews that he had done,” Hoffman said. “His display of emotions at that moment revealed that he understood instinctively that what we were doing is being a portrait of him. He had to be emotionally available in a way that is not appropriate when he’s being interviewed as a public health expert.”
“People ask me what are the surprises, and when you are around Tony Fauci for a length of time, you realize that he wears his heart on his sleeve,” Tobias said. “Public health isn’t an abstract field, it isn’t a field just of numbers or larger communities, it’s the story of people. And that he really feels that, and he has walked through his life for 40, 50 years feeling that, and that that’s how he approaches it.”
“Fauci” is currently streaming on Disney+.