Crusading documentaries have now become a common sub-genre: from Michael Moore’s slick polemics and eco-worrier Al Gore’s persuasive An Inconvenient Truth (2006) to the animal rights appeals of both The Cove (2009) and Blackfish (2013). As such, these high profile offerings present the film critic with something of a dilemma. How does one judge the merits of a film when its argument is so compelling in and of itself? How do you coolly extricate the merit of the film from the passionate good the cause arouses? Fortunately, Dylan Mohan Gray’s brilliantly constructed Fire in the Blood (2013) is a doc which does the righteousness of its cause more than justice.
Gray’s film is a J’accuse to the Big Pharma companies in the dock for having effectively sentenced swathes of people in the developing world to preventable death with their relentless fixing of unaffordable prices for life-saving drugs. The danger here is that Gray’s doc could have been akin to watching someone shooting repeatedly into an open goal. However, the nefarious nature of pharmaceutical companies is so often taken for granted that a cataloguing of its moral bankruptcy is almost breathtaking. Also, in a sense that’s only half of the story. The other half comes with activists such as Zackie Achmat, the South African human rights campaigner who refused to take the antiretrovirals he could afford until they were made available to all.
Yusuf Hamied is also heralded; an Indian scientist who developed affordable versions of Aids treatments and then offered them to the world at a minute fraction of what the other drug companies were asking. Unlikely heroes crop up also. For a moment, George W. Bush seems to have hit on a solution before a fatal loss of nerve. Former President Bill Clinton also arrives pugnaciously late to the fight, but with his own foundation and interventions bringing some powerful persuasion to the table. Fire in the Blood angers and inspires in equal measure, but it’s also careful to keep its argument organised and rational, debunking and meeting head-on the arguments and the advertising campaigns used by the pharmaceutical industry to discredit its critics and maintain the status quo.
Although the Aids battle has so far seemingly been won by the activists, new developments such as the TRIPS (Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) agreement look like strangling the ability of developing countries – and increasingly Western countries – to fund their own health systems, all in the name of Intellectual Property Rights. This is despite the fact that over eighty per cent of the development of new pharmaceutical products comes from publicly-funded research and not the private sector. Gray’s Fire in the Blood ends with a plea that we don’t make a sequel necessary. As fantastic a documentary as this is, let’s hope that’s the case.