Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Review: Fire in the Blood (2012)

Fire in the Blood (2012) is a documentary from director Dylan Mohan Gray, a trained historian who has been working in various capacities on feature films for a number of years, with acclaimed directors including Peter Greenaway, Mira Nair and Paul Greengrass. Fire in the Blood is his first feature length film and was chosen as part of the official selection at 2013’s Sundance Film Festival.

This hard-hitting documentary is an angry account of medicine, monopoly and malice in a still ensuing battle between western pharmaceutical industries, the Government and Aids victims in third world countries. The film's allegations that the Governments’ block of availability to low-cost Aids drugs resulted in more than ten million unnecessary deaths in the 90s. This film documents the facts that led to the loss of so many lives and also investigates the story behind a brave group of people who fought against the companies and dared to shake their fists at the powers that be.

Filmed in four different countries, the documentary features evidential contributions from key global figures and experts including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former US President Bill Clinton. In relation to the injustice, case-studies from different countries and all walks of life are given the opportunity to share their personal experiences and demonstrate the effect that the unavailability of vital medication had on their lives and the devastating affect it had on their families and relatives who also suffered needlessly from the fatal disease. As the film proceeds it is made absolutely clear that this is simply the beginning of what has the potential to be a very long and complex battle. This is the first time, on film that this shocking story has received exposure and due to serious setbacks and financial profits far exceeding the worth of human life, it is clear that the fight for easy western-style access to life saving medicine has sadly only just begun...

Fire in the Blood is a passionate attempt to bring awareness to this absolutely sickening case. There is no doubt about it, this is a story that needs to be told, needs to be heard and needs to be acted upon immediately. But what becomes clear as the film progresses is the sheer size of the battle and whether one single person has the ability to actually make any difference. Director Dylan Mohan Gray is also the narrator of the film and delivers all of the cold hard facts and weaves together evidential sound-bites to back up his case. Unfortunately, the tone of his voice and his harsh and unrelentingly serious delivery ultimately comes across as robotic, monotone and didactic and completely devoid of any emotional sincerity or personality.

The film is very much a division of two extreme sides of good and evil. Mohan Gray draws on “real” figures willing to share their stories of living with AIDS. Primarily, we are presented with a variety of people men, women and children who contracted the disease in a number of ways. Admirably, none of the characters are stereotypes and AIDS is presented in a wide scope, showing no “exclusivity” when it comes to victims. Nicholas Roeg’s doom-laden AIDS tombstone still casts it’s horrifically dark shadow over the third world. “Don’t die of Ignorance” read the slogan. In a sickening u-turn, the victims began dying due to the selective ignorance of the pharmaceutical industries and the Government. Mohan Gray stitches together a tapestry of case-studies, juxtaposing footage of people talking to camera and shots of children playing football in dusty streets, market scenes and heartbreaking photographs.

While it’s clear that he is attempting to shed some light on the characters lifestyles its affect is quite the opposite. Case studies are given minimal screen-time and while it is easy to empathise with their tragic story, it is very hard to engage with them or develop the bond that is so vital between the characters and the audience. The director simply scratches the surface of his subjects and presents a general outline of their experience. Perhaps less characters and a tighter approach, allowing the characters to relax on camera would have allowed the viewer to form a more direct and emotional attachment. The same can be said for the delivery of information. Facts and figures are presented via quickly introduced experts who wax lyrical amidst an array of newspaper headlines, stats and intimidating shots of gloomy boardrooms that are interweaved with the countless case-studies. There is a distinct lack of cohesion in the telling of this story.

The introduction of industry experts comes in the form of their name and purpose being shown briefly in text on the screen. However, the constant bombardment of footage and visual information and the introduction of countless other figureheads make it easy to forget who you’re listening to. None of the experts are shown in an environment that enables the viewer to build a relationship of trust and if you don’t know these people, how can you trust them or identify with anything they’re saying? However, we all know Bill Clinton. Mercifully, the conclusion ties up loose ends with campaigners finding a loophole in the system for the availability of generic drugs via Public Health Emergency Exemptions. So ultimately we are presented with a satisfactory conclusion. However, as the narrator will have us know, this is far from a happy ending.

Kudos to Mohan Gray for bringing this horrific story to the screen as the more people find out the truth behind the monopolization of patented and in some revolting cases, unpatented drugs, the better. Fire in the Blood undeniably has its heart in the right place, but it is passionate without a firm sense of purpose. Mohan Gray has researched his subject thoroughly but instead of moulding his information into a concise and informative package, he has simply presented us with the lot. There is more than enough information here to get the viewer enraged, but there is no indication of how, as an individual you can possibly help to fight this colossal battle. It is a depressing story which evolves into an equally depressing film that leaves you feeling cold, sad and shameful. How is it possible for us to fight the cause, when, as users of pharmaceuticals and one of the richest countries in the world, we are the cause?

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