Bill Clinton is coming to Moab – on the big screen, at least.
The Utah Film Center and the Grand County Library are hosting a free screening this week of the documentary “Fire in the Blood,” which features the former president and other prominent crusaders against the global HIV/ AIDS epidemic. The 2013 Sundance Film Festival selection will be shown in belated honor of World AIDS Day at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 18, at Star Hall, 159 E. Center St.
Filmmaker Dylan Mohan Gray gives audiences a deeply critical look at pharmaceutical companies’ efforts to block access to low-cost drugs that keep the virus in check. In doing so, he argues, they caused at least 10 million unnecessary deaths around the world – and his film maintains they wouldn’t have gotten away with it without the collusion of governments in developed countries.
“This film exposes how governments and corporations have blocked the distribution of low-cost drugs and tells the stories of people fighting against what some call ‘the crime of the century,’” Utah Film Center Artistic Director Patrick Hubley said.
The first reported HIV case dates back to 1959, and after the U.S. reported its first AIDS cases in 1981, the number of related deaths in the country increased rapidly throughout the 1980s.
It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the first effective treatments to fight the virus became available, leading to sharp declines in the nationwide epidemic, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
At the time, however, the antiretroviral “cocktail” of three drugs typically cost each patient more than $10,000 per year. Given the high costs, they remained out of reach for most people in some global regions hit hardest by the AIDS epidemic, including sub-Saharan Africa: An HIV-positive judge from South Africa who is featured in the film recalls that he spent one-third of his annual salary on the drugs.
While millions died, the filmmaker says, “Big Pharma’s” legal teams and lobbyists fought to prevent cheaper drugs from coming onto the market.
In one well-known case, for instance, a group of Western pharmaceutical companies sued the South African government when it took action to make generic drugs available at a tiny fraction of the typical cost.
“The film is riveting, and at times enraging, as it explores a little-known side of the fight against HIV/ AIDS,” Hubley said. “For many of the 35 million people infected with the virus, access to affordable retroviral drugs is one of the biggest challenges they face.”
Grand County Library Assistant Jessie Magleby hasn’t seen the film yet. But she said it promises to highlight several issues that deserve everyone’s consideration, including “Big Pharma’s” decision to focus on profits ahead of people.
“I hope the audience will be encouraged by the ultimate success of those fighting for access to life-saving medicines and the power of grassroots efforts,” Magleby said. “To the average citizen, issues like this can seem impossible, unapproachable and hopeless. But this film reminds us that we the people do have the power to make huge changes.”
Gray has said he was initially shocked and disgusted when he learned about the issue. But he was also inspired and moved by the “improbable” group of people who came together to reverse the situation.
One of those people, the chairman of an India-based generic drug manufacturer, announced that his company would sell the antiretroviral drugs to developing nations for about $350 per patient annually. The same chairman also fought successfully for medicine patent laws that transformed India into the “pharmacy of the developing world,” saving and improving hundreds of millions of lives in the process, according to Gray’s film.
Clinton, meanwhile, created a foundation after he left the White House that further reduced HIV/ AIDS treatment costs in Africa to less than $100 per year. The former president’s high-profile involvement in those treatment programs undermined the pharmaceutical industry’s claims that the cheaper drugs were less effective than its own products, the filmmaker maintains.
The nonpartisan Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs says that Gray’s documentary is one-sided at times, and downplays the recent progress in the battle against HIV/ AIDS. It notes that nearly everyone who is featured in the film is sympathetic to the filmmaker’s opinions, and points out that a majority of people who live with HIV/ AIDS now have access to affordable treatment options.
Still, the Carnegie Council says the film’s message is an important one, noting that it calls attention to an issue that many people in the developed world often overlook.
“There is a strong case to be made that the Western response to the developing world’s AIDS crisis in the 90s was indeed ‘the crime of the century,’ as the film’s website boldly proclaims,” the council says.
Movie examines politics of access to life-saving drugs
What: Utah Film Center and the Grand County Library present “Fire in the Blood”
When: Thursday, Dec. 18 at 7 p.m.
Where: Star Hall, 159 E. Center St.
To learn more about the movie, go to: http://fireintheblood.com/. For more information about the Utah Film Center and upcoming free screenings, go to: http://www.utahfilmcenter.org/.