If you don’t want to feel pretty angry, don’t watch this film. Fire In The Blood is an impassioned plea that’s bound to promote fury among many viewers who’ll barely be able to believe the story it tells about the callous indifference big pharmaceutical companies show to millions of lives. Indeed it’s not even indifference, it’s premeditatedly planning to allow millions to die in order to protect profits.
First time director Dylan Mohan Gray looks at the AIDS crisis after the emergence of anti-retroviral drugs. In the west, the result was that a disease that had seemed like an imminent death sentence became a manageable condition, and as a result public hysteria about the disease dropped and it began to fall from public consciousness.
However in the Third World the problem was getting ever more acute, with tens of millions infected. While medications were now available that could save these people’s lives, virtually nobody could afford them. Despite the fact they were essentially condemning millions to death, large pharmaceutical companies repeatedly refused to provide cheaper HIV medication to the developing world.
While many people may have heard about this and tutted, the facts presented in this documentary really make your blood boil. For example, a generic version of one drug would have cost 5 cents a pill, however the branded, patented version was being marketed for up to $40 a dose – and the company charged the same to Americans as they did to poor Africans for whom $40 represented most of their monthly wage.
Although arch capitalists might argue the big companies had to do this to cover the costs of researching future medications, the film is keen to point out that big pharma mainly spends money on marketing – by a fairly large margin – and most of the actual research is paid for by universities and governments (although the drugs resulting from this are often patented by the major companies). In this case there’s no doubt that the only reason they refused to lower the price for poorer counties was to protect profits, as they were scared that if the third world got cheap drugs, Americans would demand lower price medication too.
As the documentary goes on, the more indefensible big pharma’s position seems. Even worse is the pressure put on poor nations by rich western governments, threatening them with sanctions if they broke the patents and imported cheap generic versions of the drugs – essentially trying to strong arm these nations into letting millions of their people needlessly die, just so that some big companies could prop up a system they were worried would collapse if people in the West realised how much they were overpaying for medications.
While much of the film is likely to make you absolutely furious about the sheer callousness of some parts of the capitalist system, it’s not completely without hope. Fire In The Blood features interviews with those both in the first and third world who stood up and tried to change things. Even many third world governments were reluctantly backing the big pharma system (afraid of what would happen if they didn’t), so it really was a grass roots effort to change things. This movement really started gaining traction when it was revealed that rather than the $15,000 a year the big companies were charging for HIV medication, it could actually be provided for less than a dollar a day by a factory in India.
The film shows what can be done by regular people, even while it infuriates you that something that was so obviously wrong was allowed to go on for so long, and how our governments actively tried to enforce it. While there were many victories in the battle for cheap HIV drugs, the documentary points out there are plenty other medications completely unavailable to billions because of the price, and that in some respects, things are even worse for those seeking a way around extortionately expensive patented medicines than they were a few years ago.
It’s a strong, well put together documentary full of fascinating information that’ll make you furious at the pharmaceutical system we’ve built. There are times when you might feel a little swamped with information and statistics, and the voiceover is a tad monotonous, but largely it’s an absorbing look at a true injustice.
Normally with documentaries about the evils of capitalism, they feel one-sided and as if they’re ignoring some reasonable points on the other side. However Fire In The Blood is about something that is utterly indefensible – the propping up of a ridiculous system that’s all about profiting from sickness, to the extent it’s willing to allow tens of millions to die, as long as it doesn’t affect the share price.
Overall Verdict: A powerful look at a terrible injustice and one of the ugliest aspects of modern capitalism. It shows there is hope that things can be changed, and calls for viewers to get involved in trying to effect real change. It might well succeed in that aim.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac