The powerful new documentary 5B is about a group of caregivers opening the first AIDS ward at San Francisco General Hospital in the '80s. Through first-person testimony, stories are told to depict how caregivers handled the difficult situation while celebrating the human spirit.
It's co-directed by Dan Krauss, best known for two Oscar-nominated films: The Death of Kevin Carter and Extremis. RYOT, a Verizon Media company, along with the help of actress Julianne Moore, released the film in select theaters ( such as Century 12 Evanston ) on June 14.
Guy Vandenberg was one of the inpatient nurses at 5B and is in the film. Originally from Amsterdam, he immigrated to the United States in 1985 where he began his career as a medical worker. He currently works as a nurse in the outpatient unit at San Francisco General.
His partner, Steve Williams, is also in the film and hails from New York where he worked at a branch of the health department. After moving to the Bay Area, he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1999. He was hospitalized at San Francisco General Hospital, but thanks to medical advances recovered. He currently is a political activist and community organizer.
Windy City Times: How was it working with the producers of this documentary?
Steve Williams: We weren't going to do the film at first. Another colleague of mine was asked to do it and she didn't want to, so she told the producers about us.
Dan got in touch with us and he was wonderful. He had a way of drawing stories out from you. When a story was in the back of your head somewhere he could bring it to the front.
Guy Vandenberg: He goes with the flow. He and his crew made us feel comfortable. He drew out Dr. Day. He made her feel at ease to say all of those terrible things.
SW: It shouldn't have been about her. It should have been about the patients.
GV: That really annoyed me.
WCT: The other side of the story was Rita Rocket, who cheered everyone up on the ward by dressing up and hosting brunch.
GV: We love her. She was a travel agent, as was Steve.
SW: I didn't know her when I first moved to the city, but I knew she was a riot.
WCT: How has Truvada changed the culture in San Francisco, where you all live?
SW: I definitely see a progression. Unfortunately there is a lot of regression at the same time. There are AIDS deniers. There are people who are not practicing the safest type of sex. There are many people who don't know they have HIV.
GV: In San Francisco, they have a goal of getting to zero. We are actually making progress toward it. New infections and deaths are declining. We have a lot more work to do. There are communities and populations where this isn't happening at the same rate.
At the clinic where I work, I keep track of mortality. I see that disproportionately African American men and women are still dying. That is something we need to figure out.
Who are the new untouchables? In San Francisco, they are the homeless people. All over San Francisco people know their status and people with an undetectable viral load is in the seventies and going up. For a homeless person it is extremely difficult to achieve that. Imagine being homeless and staying on meds. We are never going to get to zero if we don't address everybody. When you hear the words "this neighborhood has been cleaned up" you have to pay attention.
WCT: What would you like audiences to get out of this film?
SW: I would like people to give back to the community. I was so sick and I realize now how sick I was, so I wanted to give back. Hopefully, I am doing a good job at it.
GV: I want to tell people to not wait for a leader or a hero. Nobody is coming to save us. There is always something to do. The time is now. We are prepared as we are going to get.
Whether you are a nurse or a Rita Rocket, it's right in front of us all. This is the reality we live in and we have to do it. It feels so much better when you do something.
SW: Everybody can do something and contribute. There is a power in touching somebody. The nurses in 5B touched us. It made such a difference.
WCT: The movie does a good job of showing what happens when a person loves their job.
GV: That is universal. Many of us spend a lot of time doing a job. When you love what you are doing that's such a gift. The janitor at the clinic where I work loves his job and we love him. He's a wonderful person.
Do something you love and you will be happy. Happiness is contagious, just like hatred is, the opposite is true too. If you treat each other with kindness, it just grows exponentially.
The barriers have shifted. For nurses today, it's technology and it can become dominant. Electronic records can make you look at the screen instead of the patient. It can be helpful, but you have to be in control of it. Remember you are there for the patient and they need human connection. If it becomes about the tools then you will burn out and start hating your job.
SW: I notice that when I visit my doctor. The screen is facing one way, but he's close to me and only uses the screen sometimes.
GV: It's about a connection and a relationship.
WCT: Speaking of relationships, how long have you been together?
GV: For 27 years.
WCT: What advice do you give people?
SW: It just works. We moved in together two weeks after we met. You never know!