Dylan Mohan Gray’s edifying documentary Fire In The Blood pays tribute to those who brought down the multinationals and brought an end to Africa’s AIDS crisis.
Medicine Man by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Like Steven Soderbergh’s upcoming Side Effects, Dylan Mohan Gray’s Fire In The Blood takes a hatchet to the pharmaceutical industry, uncovering the price-fixing patent racket that deprived ten million HIV infected Africans from receiving the low-cost medicines that would save their lives. His documentary takes shape through archive footage, talking heads and survivors’ testimonies, slowly unravelling the reasons why, after triple combinations of anti-retroviral drugs proved successful in the States in 1996, medication was still until recently refused the global south. First-time director Dylan Mohan Gray, not only writing, editing and directing but also providing the narration to Fire In The Blood, is the David standing up to these pharmaceutical goliaths, rousing a company of archbishops, medicine makers and ex-presidents to follow his rallying cry.
Piecing together the testimonies of HIV sufferers in South Africa, Uganda, Mozambique and India, Fire In The Blood isn’t so much the story of AIDS so much as the battle of those living in Africa, Asia and South America to gain access to affordable life-saving drugs. And so its title doesn’t so much refer to the disease within threatening to extinguish life, as the anger of victims dying needlessly at the hands of the pharmaceutical industry. In the USA, a course of anti-retrovirals still costs over $15,000 a year, a price point on the edge of affordable decided upon by the industry to keep profits high. For the millions of AIDS victims in Africa, earning less than a dollar a day, it’s out of reach. But it’s thanks to the activists in South Africa, lobbyists and journalists in Washington and rebellious medicine men in India featured here that the death toll in developing countries has been dramatically reduced.
It’s been a series of individual actions too that has felled the patent-wielding goliaths that prevented generic drugs being imported into countries to be made available at a fraction of the cost. Whether it be Zachie Achmat, the high-profile HIV activist refusing to take anti-retroviral drugs despite urgings from President Mandela until they are made available to everyone throughout South Africa, or James Love the NGO lobbyist who goes in search of low-cost generic drugs, or Yusuf Hamied, the Indian pharmacist who agrees to supply the combination drugs for $1 a day, or Peter Mugyenyi, the Ugandan doctor who decides to ignore his country’s sanctions on generic drugs and import them direct from India, or Donald G McNeil Jnr, the New York Times journalist who brings the scandal to the attention of the American public, or President George W Bush who lends his support to generic drugs by citing its price in his State of the Nation address committing the USA to combatting AIDS in Africa, it’s with common purpose but without a common plan that these individuals found the chinks in the pharmaceuticals’ legal armour, and finally succeeded in bringing medicine to Africa.
And it’s miraculous how quickly the drugs turn lives around, the anti-retrovirals inducing a Lazarus effect whereby patients suddenly regain appetite, energy and strength. Photographic evidence of a woman on the brink of death and returned to full health is astonishing and heartwarming. But if anything, Fire In The Blood lacks a fully rounded villain; with no spokesmen from Pfizer or GlaxoSmithKline participating, Dylan Mohan Gray is instead reliant on footage from the archives to expose their lobbyists and pocket senators condescendingly doubting the inhabitants of the global south and their ability to stick to a medicine regimen, read packaging instructions or even a clock. But despite its centrality to the scandal, even the intricacies of patent law refuse to sustain interest for long. And as a result, Fire In The Blood often jumps irrationally from one testimony to the next, from one continent to another.
Like Michael Moore’s Sicko, Fire In The Blood provides an x-ray of the US health care system, and the pharmaceutical industry’s stranglehold on medicines all over the world. Most disturbingly, it exposes the corporate response to their lost battle over AIDS medication, angling to win the patent war with the introduction of TRIPS (Trade-Related aspects of Intellectual Property rights) an agreement enforced by the World Trade Organisation which compels all nations to buy expensive, branded drugs and forbids them from creating generic copies. Warning against the dangers of the pharmaceuticals’ monopoly and cautioning against a sequel, Dylan Mohan Gray’s film is more an act of defiance than an innovative piece of film-making. But with so much at stake, Fire In The Blood is enough to make the blood run cold.
Fire In The Blood is released on 22nd February 2013 in the UK