SUNDANCE: Directors Tease 'Dirty Wars,' 'Fire In The Blood,' 'God Loves Uganda,' 'A Teacher,' 'Narco Cultura'

Fire In the Blood by director Dylan Mohan Gray [World Documentary Competition]

In 1996, the development of antiretroviral drug therapies may not have cured AIDS, but the breakthrough made the disease treatable—if patients could afford the hefty price tag. For millions in the developing world, the cost kept essential medicines out of reach and meant they would continue to die. Hope came in the form of low-cost generic drugs manufactured in India and elsewhere, but pharmaceutical companies—favoring patents over patients and profits over the prevention of unnecessary deaths—threatened legal action against any company that dared circumvent their control of the market. The struggle to overcome this inconceivably greedy blockade—with literally life or death stakes—is at the heart of Dylan Mohan Gray’s absorbing documentary.

Gray uses the response to the AIDS crisis in Africa to reveal the power of the drug companies and the impact of their lobby on the federal government. The implications of their ability to effectively deny critical treatment based on economic inequities are more far reaching than any single disease. [Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival]

Responses by Dylan Mohan

Fire in the Blood quick pitch:
Fire in the Blood is the chronicle of a staggering crime which killed upwards of ten million people as well as the untold story of an extraordinary group of individuals who dared take on the world’s most powerful companies and governments in a desperate effort to bring the carnage to an end.

…and why it's worth seeing at Sundance and beyond:
This is a true crime story of almost unfathomable dimensions, populated with extraordinary characters… it is invariably a huge eye-opener for all who see it.
At least ten million people who could have been saved with available low-cost AIDS medication died agonizing deaths due to the willful denial of antiretroviral drugs to Africa and other parts of the global south for several years after they were more or less universally available in the US and every other Western country. And no one has ever been called to account.

Fire in the Blood tells the story of those who fought back at the same time as it debunks pharmaceutical industry claims that the only way to finance development of life-saving drugs is to sell them at extortionate prices only a tiny sliver of the world’s population can pay, and it sounds a warning bell about the ever-worsening crisis of access to medicine, impacting upon rich countries as well as poor, with hundreds of millions of lives hanging in the balance. This is something which at some point affects absolutely everyone on the planet, and no one who sees this film will ever look at medicine the same way again.

Challenges, Bill Clinton and how it all came together…
I came to this project from the narrative world, with little experience in non-fiction, so there were many adjustments in thinking I needed to make. Probably the hardest for me was constantly having to convince people that they should take part in the film, yet still being totally at the mercy of their whims and moods even after they had agreed to do so. In the feature world there is generally a big unit on location somewhere and everyone anywhere close to the set is an experienced professional, there to do a job. I found it very difficult, especially at first, having to plead with people to turn up somewhere, to let us shoot them in their everyday lives, having to explain why we needed to do what we were doing, etc., bearing in mind that as a rule documentary subjects are not paid for their time, apart perhaps for some minor expenses, nor are they professional performers.

Sometimes people would just not show up and I’d be sitting there with my crew watching my already-tight budget fly out the window. Even when that didn’t happen, people would often be resistant to giving us the amount of time we needed, so that created stresses of its own. It was frustrating to constantly be on edge about whether we were going to be able to do things because whomever we were shooting with might just decide they didn’t feel like doing it… Also, being a first-time director, it sometimes seems like most of the people involved feel like they’re doing you a favor – and, to be fair, in many cases they are – but that’s not a particularly good basis for doing quality work, so you have to find ways to change that equation.

Getting the interview with Bill Clinton was another adventure… he was a major part of our story, and we had some great archive material of him I was very keen to use, but it would have felt strange to include it without our own interview. After getting the runaround for about a year and a half, someone from the Clinton Foundation finally took pity on me, and we were granted the interview at a Clinton Global Initiative summit in Hong Kong. I had just had major emergency knee surgery, and was on crutches in severe pain, but had to quickly find a crew and go to Hong Kong on short notice to do the interview. When the appointed time arrived and passed, a junior assistant came to me to say that the President’s schedule had been changed, and he would not be able to do the interview until “sometime later”.

It suddenly looked like despite all the effort and cost involved in getting to this point we were going to be unceremoniously bumped. My appeals to President Clinton’s handlers were met with a distinct lack of empathy. Just as things were beginning to look really bleak I ran into another, somewhat more helpful press person I had spoken to earlier and she conspiratorially whispered to me “Why didn’t you tell me you were one of Ron’s people?” I was unsure how exactly I should react to this, but it seemed like a bad idea to admit I had no idea what she meant, so I just tossed my head back and gave a knowing laugh.

It soon became clear that a rumor had spread around the conference venue that we were an undercover crew from Ron Howard’s company posing as documentary people from India. I never figured out precisely why Ron Howard would have needed a secret crew at a Clinton summit in Hong Kong, but suddenly it seemed like I was everyone’s best friend and smiles appeared where earlier there had been frowns. I quickly instructed my crew people to play along if asked, obviously without actually confirming anything, yay or nay. Soon enough, President Clinton was seated across from me in a chair and we had an excellent interview. In all probability it would have worked out anyway, but if I ever do happen to meet Ron Howard, I’m definitely going to thank him nonetheless.

Insight on the trailer:
When I put the trailer together, I wanted people to come away from it with a strong desire to see the film itself… That might seem fairly obvious, but I was keen not to give too much away, to leave a lot of questions in the viewer’s mind. I wanted to show this as a global story and very much a “crime story”, as opposed to a “social issue documentary”… We’ve had a huge amount of positive feedback on the trailer, and I personally think it’s very effective.

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