Fire In The Blood is a documentary film that whipped up a storm when it was screened at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.
The film sees Dylan Gray return to the director’s chair and tell the story about how drugs to fight HIV and Aids were withheld from developing countries - especially Africa.
I caught up with the filmmaker to chat about his latest project, what sparked his interest in this story and what lies ahead.
- You are about to release your new movie Fire In The Blood so can you tell me a little bit about the film?
Fire In The Blood is essentially, for me, about one of the greatest crimes in human history; which is how low cost drugs to fight Aids were withheld from developing countries - particularly Africa. We estimate that the death toll that resulted from this action was at least ten million lives lost.
Secondly it is very much a story about an inspirational group of people who came together from different parts of the world to break this blockade against what seemed to be impossible odds. They faced off against the biggest corporations and the most powerful governments in the world.
Thirdly and finally it is really a warning call that the conditions have been set in place for something like this, or perhaps worse, to happen again in the very near future.
I think the film consists of these three elements; the story of this horrible crime, the untold story of this very interesting group of people that came together to break the blockade and a deconstruction of the system of development and commercialisation of medicine and a warning call that this could very easily happen again.
- This is a hard hitting and shocking movie so where did this movie start for you? And what was you interest in making this movie?
The genesis of the project was actually an article that I read in a newspaper in 2004 - I was working on a film in Sri Lanka and I just happened to pick up a copy of The Economist. There was an article about one of the character in our film Dr Yusuf Hamied, a generic drug maker from India.
It was interesting because it seemed to be quite antagonistic towards him although according to the description of what he had done in the article he seemed to be doing really wonderful work. So my curiosity was peaked as to why there was this strange attitude of the article.
By a twist of fate I was actually able to meet him and get to know him quite well. Through him I was able to meet Bill Haddad, a historian, and he really laid out the story for me in interesting terms and introduced me to a lot of people who would become characters in the film.
So initially I was just curious and fascinated about it - because of my background in history - and I was shocked that there wasn’t one book or one film that comprehensively told this story. I actually tried to interest a couple of my documentary friends in sort of taking up the project but they could see that it would be a long term and difficult film to do.
Ultimately I just woke up one day, I was actually supposed to do a narrative feature, and I just said to myself ’I just have to do this film, I can’t wait for two more years.’
I just couldn’t wait to get this other film done as I felt that this story was being lost and it was clear to me, having spoken to some of the people in the film, that they were already beginning to forget some of the details.
Nobody was asking these questions and nobody had asked them these questions in ten years so it was clear to me that if I waited another two years large chunks of this story would be lost.
- You have slightly touched on my next question I was wondering how much you knew about this problem before you started working on the film? How much were you shocked by what you saw and the things that you discovered during the research and filming process?
I knew quite a lot by the time I made the film but that was only because I knew nothing about it when I first started reading about it - I was startled that such a big story could have completely eluded my attention as I consider myself to be a pretty well informed person.
I found that a lot of the audiences that we have shown the film to had that same reaction ’why didn’t I know more about this?’ ’Why don’t I know more about this?’- that is pretty much a universal response that people have had. So that very much mirrored my own feelings when I started reading about the story and the issue.
So by the time I made the conscious decision to make the film I actually knew quite a bit. I did have to do a lot of research afterwards and a lot of stuff did pop up, which surprised me to a greater or lesser degree, but fundamentally I knew quite a lot about it when I took the decision to make the film.
- A whole host of people contribute to the movie with Zackie Achmat and Edwin Cameron having two very different experiences with HIV. So can you talk about how you found these different stories and what you were looking for in your contributors?
I did about six months research prior to making the film - if I had to do it again I wouldn’t do as much research because I did become a bit of an expert in the film and the story; you don’t want to be too much of an expert because that makes it difficult to convey the nuances of things to the public.
Also when you are doing your interview you don’t want people to address you as a colleague you want them to speak in terms that can be acceptable to the public. I read a lot about different people and I talked to many people who were involved in the story.
Certain names kept coming up again and again - there weren’t that many people involved in this ultimately - and so most of the people we depict in our film were struggling in a quite lonely fashion as most of their colleagues didn’t really believe that the treatment of Aids in Africa was possible. There were very few people who believed in it and there were very few people who were willing to discuss it and so there were only a small collection of people.
There were some people that we didn’t have time to depict in our film but the people who are the key people in our film are all the key people whose names kept coming up over and over again as extremely important in having created the groundwork and conditions from treatment to take place.
So in that sense it wasn’t very difficult to choose - it was obvious that someone like Zackie Achmat had to play a key role in the film. Edwin Cameron as well because everyone talks about the speech he gave at the Durban conference as being such a critical moment.
He is a very interesting person as well because he is a brilliant legal scholar and an incredibly articulate advocate of human rights - at the same time as being HIV positive and being on antiretroviral drugs. So he is in a unique position to discuss these issues in a very compelling and inspirational way.
- Zackie and Edwin both give very emotional stories so how did you find your time with them?
I got to know Edwin Cameron quite well, a very close friend of mine and Edwin sit on the Rhodes Scholarship Committee together in South Africa; they are both Rhodes scholars and they know each other very well personally. I feel like he has become a friend and I have immense regard for him - I had an immense regard for him before I met him but he is an incredibly kind and warm and generous person.
Zackie is also someone who I have immense regard for, I don’t know him as well personally, but he had a moving story and he is so articulate and passionate - I don’t see how anyone could be failed to be moved by that.
It was a very very positive experience in both cases. Some people ask me ‘wasn’t it difficult to make this film? It must have been so hard to spend years working on something that is such a cataclysmic atrocity? It must be depressing?’
But actually I found it very uplifted by the people that we show in the film and not only that but the people who have helped us along the way as there was so many people of goodwill out there who stepped up to help us.
We probably had about two to three hundred thousand dollars worth of legal services donated to us for free because people believed in the project that we were doing.
So things like that are very life affirming and I feel very good about them and there are so many people in our film that I have immense regard and respect for. So there is a lot of positivity in there and I feel that it really comes across in the film as well.
- Bill Clinton also gives his view on this situation, and he is someone who has done a lot of work in Africa with HIV programmes, so how easy/difficult was it to get him involved in the movie?
It was fairly difficult actuary. When I was doing that six months of research at the beginning of the project I made a list of people that I absolutely wanted in the film, luckily I got all of them, and Bill Clinton was at the top of that list as he played a very big role in this.
I knew that it was really important to connect with him and get him involved but I also knew that it was going to be really difficult because he is a difficult person to get to. Also we were not coming from a big organisation like the BBC or I as a director did not have a string of Oscar nominations - we were basically and unknown group that was coming and asking him to sit down with us.
There are a lot of potential downsides for someone like Bill Clinton to sit down with unknown people and perhaps not a lot of upside; even if he says great things maybe no one will see it but if you say something stupid or you are made to look stupid then that can go all over the world. So it was totally understandable that people like President Clinton would be quite cautious about who he sits down with.
So it took about a year and a half and I think a lot of people who were associated with the film had given up and they were saying ‘why don’t you just stop it?’ I have found in many cases that if you don’t give up you get what you want and this was one of those cases.
- You have talked about the fact that this was not a depressing project to work on so can you talk about the filming process and the challenges that you faced in pulling all these stories together?
Pulling all of the stories together was the challenge - it was the most difficult part of the film. The difficulty of taking different types of stories and different types of strands; whether they be narrative strands, character strands, political, contextual or historical and trying to fit them into a film that follows a certain chronology is very difficult.
You don’t want a film that felt episodic or choppy where people feel like they are just getting into something and then they are ripped out of it in order to go to another place.
So that was a very delicate process and I think that finally we succeeded quite well and the film, for the viewer, feels very natural and organic but to strike that balance was difficult. In terms of shooting I don’t think we faced too many big challenges as people helped us a lot.
The hardest part for me, because I am not coming from a documentary world, it was quite difficult for me to understand that as a filmmaker working with people who have never been in front of the camera or who had a lot of apprehension - you are not allowed to pay people so you are constantly asking for favours - and that was difficult to adjust to because I come from the fiction side where everyone on set is a professional and has a job.
So I had to be more of a diplomat and a little bit of a councillor and that took some getting use to - I resented it at first but I came to understand that that was an important part of the process.
The only reason that it took a long time was because it was difficult to strike the right balance and find a way to tell the story so that it was very accessible without dumbing it down.
But I didn’t want to make it a theoretical film I wanted to keep those human stories and I had to make sure that it did degenerate into an academic discussion.
I feel very good about the way that it turned out and I have been really gratified by the response and all of the people who have helped up along the way. I wouldn’t say that it was a difficult project in that respect it was just one that required quite a bit of time to do right.
- Fire In The Blood was part of the official selection at the Sundance Film Festival so how was your experience out there? And how have you found the response to the film so far?
I have just come back from Utah and it was just an amazing experience at Sundance. I was so gratified that they included us because the selection project is so brutal - not for the filmmakers but for the programmers as they have to whittle over two thousand feature length films down to a selection of around twenty.
It is an incredible task that they face and talking to them you can see how painful the process is as they see so many excellent films and important films.
Having a platform at Sundance completely elevates a documentary film and this year all five of the documentary feature nominees started their journey at Sundance. It is just an unbelievably important platform and the audiences are just amazing in terms of both the energy that they bring but they are also very influential audiences.
I was a little bit curious to see how American audience would accept this film as there is so much food for thought for them in this film.
I must say that it was incredibly gratifying and there were huge wait lists outside the cinema, people being turned away and people begging for tickets. I got on the bus and the driver had seen the film and he made me sit beside him and talk to him about the film for half an hour - those things don’t really happen to me (laughs).
So it was phenomenal and there are a lot of people who are interested in helping us with distribution in the U.S. and in other places.
I must say that it was so incredible to interact with the other filmmakers and Sundance is really terrific in that sense as they have a very strong community ethos for the filmmaking community. So it was wonderful to get to know and spend time with other filmmakers - that was really a highlight.
- What do you hope people will take away from this movie when they see it?
I think that people will have knowledge of a hugely historic episode which they had probably never heard of before. And to really understand that these things don’t happen in a vacuum and they happen for certain reasons and there are reasons why they don’t know about it - it is not by accident.
There are a lot of people who have vested interests who have a lot to answer for and who would prefer for this story never to be told but I think by telling the story it does create a certain responsibility in the audience that these things are going on.
The conditions have been laid for this to happen again and nobody has any excuse to be surprised if that comes to pass.
So I want the audience, on the one hand, to know this incredible story as it is an unbelievable crime story and an unbelievably inspirational story of how people can come together and fight against nearly impossible odds against the biggest and most powerful governments and corporations in the world and succeed.
But at the same time it is very much a waning call and it says ‘look the conditions have been put in place for this to happen again’. So there is no excuse for us to sit on our hands and to be complacent and pretend that we didn’t know this had happened in the past and could very easily happen again.
- Finally what is next for you?
Right now we are releasing the film here and in Ireland and then in April we are releasing the film in India and the U.S. will come, I hope, in the first half of this year.
In the meantime I have started work on the other project that I was suppose to do before I started this one - it is a narrative feature and I would like to revive that. I hope this will be the next project but we are still tinkering with the script but I think it is going to be very special. And much like this film I think it will be very much a groundbreaking film in the context of Indian cinema.
There is also a decent amount of interest in my next documentary project and several good people who want to be involved.
I had a project that I had started to develop and we have had a lot of positive feedback on that so I think we will be packaging that and putting it together.
“Fire In The Blood is in UK cinemas from 22 February. Check www.fireintheblood.com for dates.”