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Doc Talk

‘5B’ recalls when caregivers couldn’t offer hope or healing

Ward 5B caregiver Rita Rockett visits with a patient in the documentary “5B.”
Ward 5B caregiver Rita Rockett visits with a patient in the documentary “5B.”(Ken Kobré)

“5B,” which likely has the shortest title of any documentary that will be released this year, touches on some of the profoundest emotions: grief and rage and love, and that’s just for starters. The film opens June 14.

In 1983, San Francisco General Hospital opened the first dedicated ward anywhere for AIDS patients: Ward 5B, hence the film’s title. Directors Paul Haggis (“Crash”) and Dan Krauss (cinematographer on “O.J.: Made in America”) recount the ward’s history, as well as that of the AIDS crisis, through the experience of the caregivers who worked there.

The ward received considerable media attention at the time, which means there’s an extensive trove of news footage for Haggis and Krauss to draw on, as well as home movies and video. They cut back and forth between talking-head interviews now and footage from then. The frequent sight of someone in his or her 60s or 70s juxtaposed with that of the same person 35 years ago is time-machine startling — and time-machine effective.

It also visually parallels the effects of AIDS. Again and again we’ll see video or photographs of a vigorous young man juxtaposed with images of someone who looks like that man, only decades older — then realize we’re seeing the same person, now a patient, his appearance transformed by AIDS.

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“5B” opens with the camera following an elderly man walking through empty hospital corridors. The space is clean and not unattractive, but also nondescript. Yet somehow there’s a sense of emotion and gravity. The man is Cliff Morrison, a former nurse, who worked at San Francisco General during the early 1980s, when medical professionals were first having to deal with “gay cancer” and the impact and extent of the AIDS crisis were first emerging.

It was Morrison’s idea that the hospital open a special-care unit for these patients. All the personnel who worked there volunteered to do so. No one knew what caused the disease or how infectious it might be.

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Part of what made the ward unique was that AIDS at that time was effectively a death sentence. So that section of San Francisco General was more hospice than hospital. How do women and men whose job is dedicated to healing respond when their patients have no hope and all that caregivers can provide is comfort? And what if providing that comfort might very well be putting themselves at risk? Perhaps the most compelling story “5B” has to tell involves a nurse who contracts HIV from an inadvertent needle stick.

The documentary is at its most powerful, and that is very powerful, when we hear the stories of the caregivers. It works less well — it feels a bit diffuse, actually — when it broadens its focus to give a larger perspective on the AIDS crisis.

There’s archival footage of San Francisco in the ’70s. Blondie plays on the soundtrack. Fit-looking, mustached men fill the streets, and there’s the sunny sense of an entire city — or at least the Castro district — coming out. Soon enough that gives way to clips of Ronald Reagan frowning at a podium or Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler, the former Massachusetts congresswoman, announcing the discovery of the HIV virus.

While obviously pertinent, a narrative thread about San Francisco General nurses who wanted special protection for AIDS caregivers — which would have effectively derailed 5B — takes away from the impact of the ward nurses’ stories.

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Haggis and Krauss’s desire to use the ward as a vehicle to tell a much larger and more complex story makes sense. Yet it ultimately takes away from the truly remarkable story they have to tell, a story that may actually be more complex than matters of government policy and public opinion. Really, what is more complex than grief and rage and, especially, love?

★ ★ ½
5B

Directed by Paul Haggis and Dan Krauss. At Boston Common, Showplace Icon. 95 minutes. PG-13 (thematic content including unsettling images, and some strong language).


Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.