The True Story Behind the New AIDS Documentary 5B Will Warm Your Heart
It’s been 50 years since the Stonewall Riots launched the gay rights movement, and less than 40 since the AIDS epidemic ravaged the gay community, killing millions. This weekend, in the middle of Pride month, the new documentary 5B chronicles the creation of the first hospital ward in the United States to treat HIV patients in the early 1980s.
“This was a time when people weren’t even touching patients with HIV,” says Priyanka Chopra Jonas, a prominent supporter of the film on behalf of the AIDS charity RED, which will receive 30 percent of all box office proceeds. “They would lay in their soiled bedsheets for days where nobody would come and even enter their room to feed them. At that time, these nurses chose to not think about whether they would live or die and actually the nobility of the profession is what you see in this movie.”
The film, which received a four-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival last month, features the nurses of ward 5B at San Francisco General Hospital, who didn’t allow societal ignorance, prejudice and fear curtail their drive to administer compassionate health care to patients who had otherwise been cast aside. These were patients whom most health care professionals at the time wouldn’t touch without wearing gloves or even a hazmat suit.
Steve Williams, a former patient in ward 5B who is featured in the film, tells PEOPLE, “The nurses at San Francisco General do such a wonderful job. They’re not afraid to touch you.”
Williams was in a relationship with Guy Vandenberg, a nurse at the time, who remained at his side through months of care. Williams’ condition grew dire, and at one point he fell into a coma. He was one of very few patients who survived. Recalling that time, Vandenberg, who is now married to Williams, still gets choked up.
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As the couple talk with a PEOPLE reporter, Vandenberg looks at Williams, who is sitting next to him, and says, “One of the most hurtful things and one of the most loving things at the same time that you ever said to me was when you were really, really sick and not fully conscious but you knew that you were very sick. It was right before you were in a coma.”
He continues, “I was in your room and you said, ‘You don’t have to stay.’ And I thought you meant you could go sleep at home. And I said, ‘What do you mean? The cot’s made up.’ You said ‘You don’t have to stay with me, you can move on.’ Basically kind of setting me free. And for me, it was, ‘Where am I going to go? You are my life.’ And that, of course, is because I am in love with you and I have been for 28 years.”
Vandenberg pauses, appreciating the accolades the film has received, but says quietly, “I’m standing here for all the people who are no longer with us and for all the people who are still alive but can’t be here. Nurses, patients, activists, people who treat other people with respect and dignity and love.”
5B is in theaters now.
[Editor’s note: This article previously stated that Vandenberg was Williams’ nurse. That was not the case — he was a working nurse when Williams was admitted.]