'Fire in the Blood' tells the story of how Western pharmaceutical companies and governments blocked access to low-cost AIDS drugs for the countries of Africa and the global south in the years after 1996 – causing ten million or more unnecessary deaths – and the unlikely collection of people who decided to fight back.
Shot on four continents and including contributions from global figures such as Bill Clinton, Desmond Tutu and Joseph Stiglitz, 'Fire in the Blood' is the never-before-told true story of the remarkable coalition which came together to stop what the filmmakers call 'the Crime of the Century' and save millions of lives in the process.
This is not the end of the story, though. With dramatic past victories having given way to serious setbacks engineered far from public view, the real fight for access to life-saving medicine is almost certainly just beginning. Here, director Dylan Mohan Gray talks to HuffPost UK about what compelled him to travel so far and wide to make the film, and how the battle is just beginning...
What compelled you to make this film? How long did it take you in total?
I was compelled to make 'Fire in the Blood' because it struck me as a massive, endlessly fascinating and incredibly important story which I felt was both intellectually and emotionally provocative, as well as fundamentally cinematic… it wouldn’t let me go.
What was the biggest challenge you had in making it?
The hardest thing in making this film was definitely trying to find a way to integrate all the various strands of personal, political and historical narrative, contextual sidebars and moments of reflection into a chronologically-driven story structure, without it all feeling episodic or unnatural… it was extremely difficult to strike that balance, so when people praise the simplicity and accessibility of the film it makes me very happy, because it took an immense amount of hard work to achieve that.
What was the biggest surprise you had in making this film? Something you had no idea about?
The character of Peter Mugyenyi, an AIDS doctor from Kampala, was more or less a complete revelation. He had appeared in my research, but somehow the truly heroic nature of his struggle to help his tens of thousands of patients access treatment had eluded me… it was almost by coincidence that I read a transcript of a speech he gave at the International AIDS Conference in Durban in the year 2000 – which we show in the film, and which stopped me cold with its brutal, simple power – at which point I began to think it was probably really important to get him in the film. When we had our premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, I really wanted to bring him over to the US to speak to audiences there, and it was incredibly gratifying to watch as he received extended standing ovations at each of our screenings in Park City.
The other big surprise was our character Pradip Kumar Singh, an HIV-positive bodybuilder from Manipur in the northeast of India. Pradip is the only person I’m aware of who has reached world-class level in a competitive sport he took up only after having been diagnosed with HIV and having been extremely ill prior to getting on antiretroviral medicine. We follow him in our film as he wins the silver medal in the Indian championships, and later note that he went on to score a top ten finish at the 2012 world championships as well… truly incredible achievements for a man who didn’t leave his house for three years and was by his own admission “waiting to die”. I knew nothing about Pradip, and was shooting one day in Bombay with a sound mixer friend of mine who mentioned that he had just read a one-inch item in the paper the day before about an HIV-positive bodybuilder who was on his way to compete for the Mr. India title… nobody could find the article and for some unknown reason it wasn’t online, but eventually we managed to track Pradip down, and his story became a really wonderful element in the film. How difficult was it getting the luminaries such as President Clinton, Archbishop Tutu involved? Archbishop Tutu wasn’t actually too hard, as we had a good friend helping us in South Africa who was well connected to him, plus the fact he’s very passionate about this subject… though not long thereafter he decided to stop giving interviews, so it turns out our timing was quite fortuitous. Getting an interview with Bill Clinton was a lot more complicated… it took a year and a half for his office to finally agree, and then it involved flying to Hong Kong on short notice just as I was recovering from major knee surgery, but it was one of those things you know you’re not going to reschedule, and it was a quite remarkable experience as it turned out.
What was the reaction you had to your film? Who were you most nervous about showing it to?
The response has been really incredible… I always knew the film was strong – not so much because of me, but because of the story, the characters and the material in general – and yet I must say the intensity of the reaction has completely exceeded my expectations… I was a bit curious how it would go over with American audiences, because there is frankly such a massive amount of indoctrination which has gone on, but I found they really embraced the film, both in our festival and public screenings. I was probably most nervous showing it in South Africa… we’ve only had two screenings there, and I could only be present for one of them, but I found it to be a very moving experience. Overall, the audience reaction at that screening was profoundly mournful, in stark contrast to responses in other places… on the one hand, I suspect this is because Africans are far more familiar with this whole story than people elsewhere tend to be, but also because virtually every single person in sub-Saharan Africa has been touched by the devastation of AIDS in his or her close proximity, and there is certainly a profound sense of the immense waste and totally needless loss of millions and millions of African lives which I believe watching this film only underscores.
Has the story already moved since you put your cameras down? What are your hopes for the film? The ins and outs of the fight for global access to medicine are constantly evolving, though the broad strokes remain more or less constant. In terms of the story we tell in the film, we have created the definitive account of this monumental episode in human history, and I really don’t see anything coming to light which will change that.
My hope is that this film will on the one hand captivate, inspire, enrage and energize people with its story and characters... and on the other hand move them to start questioning the way in which taxpayer-funded medical research which could and should benefit hundreds of millions or even billions of people is cheaply bequeathed to profit-crazed corporations which use government-granted monopoly power to sell the resulting products at unconscionable prices unaffordable to all but a tiny sliver of the world’s population. I genuinely believe this film can be the first step in changing that paradigm.
Fire in the Blood is in select UK cinemas 22 and 25 February. Pls check www.fireintheblood.com for details. Watch the trailer below...