Fire In The Blood hopes to make a fire in the mind, to provoke audiences into mobilising to stop major pharmaceutical companies repeating the way they blocked access to medicine needed by poor people with HIV and AIDS – leading to an estimated 10 million deaths between 1996 and 2003.
Genocide is one word that is suggested by a pundit in the film. That might put off some potential viewers, thinking they will be confronted by the cinematic equivalent of a baying mob. But that would be wrong: this is a historical account of “the most catastrophic emergency Africa and the world has ever seen”: partisan, yes, but not hysterical or dishonest.
The quotation is from Peter Mugyenyi, a Ugandan doctor, who is among the array of activists, medical personnel, government officials, economists and people with AIDS who have been intelligently marshalled for this excellent documentary.
It’s fascinating on several levels: for its documenting of a shocking moment in contemporary world affairs; for the light it sheds on the links between Big Pharma and Big Government – not a new insight, but worth repeating; for its underlining of the vital role of campaigners, activists and angry people.
It contains some moving and cogent interviews and news footage, including South African activist Zackie Achmat declaring that he would not resume taking the drugs that were saving his life until everyone had access to the medicine, and of white South Africa judge Edwin Cameron talking personally about how the illness was killing him and the “Lazarus effect” of taking retrovirals.
Bill Clinton is there, of course, compensating for his presidential inaction; and Yusuf Hamied, the urbane, humane Indian generic drugmaker who helped break the grip of the Western pharmaceutical companies; and poacher-turned-gamekeeper Peter Rost, the former vice-president of Pfizer (and, says director Dylan Mohan Gray, the person in the film most hated by Big Pharma “since he was the ultimate insider and his insights are impossible for them to brush aside with a dismissive wave of the hand”).
The accusation against the corporations is that they made the cost of their lifesaving drugs so high that the poor (and poor governments) could not afford to buy them. And they blocked the use of cheap facsimile drugs made in developing countries, for fear that their business model would be undermined. And the cost of drugs was high, they argued, because of the time and money that they invested in drug development. As the film points out, however, drug company expenditure on research is dwarfed by that of government – and by the companies’ own spending on advertising and promotion.
Others took their side. Some US gay activists didn’t care about people in far away lands. USAID argued that antiretrovirals couldn’t be given to Africans because Africans didn’t understand modern technology and would misuse the drugs.
So perhaps genocide is not the right word for actions that stopped life-saving drugs from getting to dying patients. Perhaps a more accurate term would be racism. Or selfishness. In truth, these were contributory factors: at root, “the crime of the century” was about greed.
The breakthrough came when Hamied agreed to make the generic version of the AIDS cocktail available to poor patients for a dollar a day. At a stroke, the cost of a year’s treatment fell from $15,000 to $350. The dam had broken.
But though Big Pharma lost the battle, it won the war. Working with the US and other Western governments, the big corporations secured a reinforcement of patents in negotiations at the World Trade Organization, “signing the death warrants of millions of people in the developing world” through the denial, once again, of cheap medicines.
So the struggle must continue.
* Fire In The Blood
23 Feb 18:30 Dublin Irish Film Institute
24 Feb 18:30 Dublin Irish Film Institute
25 Feb 20:30 Bath The Little Theatre Cinema
25 Feb 18:30 Brighton Duke's at Komedia
25 Feb 20:45 Brixton, London The Ritzy
25 Feb 18:30 Cambridge Arts Picturehouse
25 Feb 18:30 Devon Exeter Picturehouse
25 Feb 18:30 Dublin Irish Film Institute
25 Feb 18:30 Edinburgh Edinburgh Cameo
25 Feb 20:30 Greenwich, London Picturehouse
25 Feb 20:45 Hackney, London Picturehouse
25 Feb 18:20 Kensal Rise, London The Lexi
25 Feb 20:45 Norwich Cinema City
25 Feb 20:30 Oxford Phoenix Picturehouse
25 Feb 18:00 Sheffield Sheffield Showroom
25 Feb 18:30 Stratford East, London Picturehouse
25 Feb 18:00 York York Picturehouse
26 Feb 18:30 Dublin Irish Film Institute
27 Feb 20:15 Aberystwyth Arts Centre
27 Feb 18:30 Dublin Irish Film Institute
28 Feb 18:30 Dublin Irish Film Institute
7 Mar 19:30 Dumfries Robert Burns Film
14 Mar 19:30 Hammersmith Riverside Studios
18 Mar 19:30 Belfast Queen's Film Theatre
19 Mar 19:30 Belfast Queen's Film Theatre
20 Mar 19:30 Belfast Queen's Film Theatre
21 Mar 19:30 Ipswich Ipswich Film Theatre
22 Mar 20:30 Hereford The Courtyard
22 Mar 19:30 Ipswich Ipswich Film Theatre
23 Mar 19:30 Ipswich Ipswich Film Theat