I often feel that the best political documentaries are the ones that make you want to throw your laptop against the wall in disgust (if that is your chosen method of viewing). The ones that you bore all of your friends as you talk about it for weeks, recollecting the injustices acutely as your heartbeat rises dangerously… these are the films that given enough attention have the potential to change the world for the better.
The latest example of this is Dylan Mohan Grey’s Fire In The Blood, a perfect companion piece with David France’s How To Survive A Plague. France’s film was a narrative made of archive footage filmed from the early AIDS activists in New York as they tried to change the law surrounding AZT, the controversial toxic medicine for the virus. After 15 years of campaigning, with many deaths and horrors, a cocktail of anti-retro virals were made available at an enormous price that managed to suppress some of the symptoms of the disease.
Grey’s film picks up the story after the medicine is widely available at a price in the Western world, and looks at how the drugs were suppressed in Africa and the poorer Eastern world. The very same people who were protesting for the drugs in America were lobbying to prevent Africans from taking the same drugs incase they ‘misused’ them, leading to a mutated virus re-infecting the healthier Western AIDS victims.
As the medicine gets cheaper to develop it is denied to the heavily affected African continent mostly due to US pharmaceutical conglomerate patents that deny the use of cheaper ‘generic’ (identical but non-branded) drugs in the region. The integral message of the film is summed up in a single sentence, ‘Foreign aid is given to further US interests.’
It is revealed that the profits from the top ten Fortune 500 companies are bigger than the other 490 combined, and they are all pharmaceutical giants. As Big Pharma accrues gigantic profits, it hugely benefits the US economy and therefore has highly effective lobbying power to influence government policy. This profit motive overrules individual suffering on the other side of the world so the drugs simply are not available.
The most shocking statistic in the whole film was that 84% of research & development for new drugs is done with public money through government spending – so effectively citizens are paying twice for their treatment. Most pharmaceutical profits go on shareholders and advertising (i.e. recruitment), mostly thanks to America being the only country in the developed world without price controls on drugs.
The film also implicitly undermines the central principle of Obamacare: that the market will solve the problem of healthcare affordability as long as everyone is involved. Bringing more people into insurance programs simply dodges the issue of obscene private profits – the fact that Republicans have referred to this as ‘socialism’ is a joke.
The real scandal of Fire In The Blood is that the scientific technology to create cheap drugs is being undermined with Big Pharma propaganda. And the real heroes here are doctors and humanitarians like Dr Mugyenyi and Yusuf Hamied who have public health as the goal instead of private profits. This film should be mandatory viewing.