Fire in the Blood follows the perverse genealogy of big pharmaceutical companies and the U.S. government’s fight against greater access to low-cost generic AIDS drugs. The documentary weaves together traditional talking heads, authoritative voiceover narration, “success stories” of folks in the developing world who’ve gone from near-death to living prosperous lives due to access to the medicine, and an indiscriminate amount of music that aims to turn this history of patents-versus-generic into some kind of suspenseful manhunt.
It will be difficult for any film addressing the AIDS epidemic not to invite comparisons to How to Survive a Plague’s sophistication, subtlety, and sensibility, and seem bathetic and soulless in comparison. Fire in the Blood, for instance, is left to mimic a kind of Errol Morris affectation, producing a collection of one-dimensional facts strung together with an utmost respect for chronology and documentary-making’s most stale conventions. While there’s obviously an urgency to calling attention to the dirty business of choosing Western profit over African and Southeast Asian lives, and the orgiastic relationship between Big Pharma and the U.S. government, the doc feels clinical and stylistically trite.
Despite its best intentions, Fire in the Blood can recall those exploitative television ads that run in the middle of the night featuring a white person shaming us into sponsoring a dying black or brown child living abroad. Instead of assaulting us with unexpected connections, intriguing juxtapositions, striking parallels, or, God forbid, emotion, the film uses stock images of misery as filler for the history it wants to narrate. The difficulty in accessing AIDS drugs in the United States itself, for example, becomes a mere footnote. Other less obvious routes for writing the history of the split between AIDS as a signifier for deferred death and death itself as a luxury of the West remain unexplored. In the end, we’re left to wonder, as one of the talking heads lets out a cringe-inducing self-congratulatory conclusion (“People do change. And, I guess, this film is part of that”), if American empathy must be bought by the impressive feats of foreign AIDS patients, is this a battle for fundamental human rights or for the rights of those who deserve it?