“If one death is a tragedy, and one million deaths a statistic, then this film is about statistics,” says narrator William Hurt with cloaked irony as the film opens.
But there is drama in numbers. And staggering statistics only bolster what the film attempts to highlight:
18 million dead in Africa every year, ravaged by AIDS.
$15,000+ annual cost of treatment using patented medicine that could’ve saved their lives.
$350 annual cost of treatment using generic medicine (exact same constituents, only no brand) disallowed by the American government under the threat of sanctions enabling US drug companies to maximize profit.
Top 10 pharma majors make more money than 490 other firms combined on the Fortune 500 list.
Fire in the Blood is a documentary by Dylan Mohan Gray, a combination of an exposé and serving as inspiration. It underlines how western pharmaceutical corporations in chasing profits have destroyed the lives of millions across third world countries and how a developing nation like India has stepped in to change circumstances.
The story is focused mostly in Africa with inputs from AIDS activist Zackie Achmat who’s got South African heavyweights Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu to endorse him; Bill Clinton; Donald McNeil, NYT’s health correspondent; and – the real coup – Peter Rost – a former VP of Pfizer who minces no words in stating that pharma companies only exist to make money and profits for their shareholders and that corporations dictate American policy. With 50% of the world’s medicine sold in the United States alone, markets like Africa are irrelevant to them though disease is far more rampant. Selling cheap drugs will only undermine their bottom-line. But there is hope in the form of people like Yusuf Hamied – chairman of Cipla, a man deeply inspired by Gandhi, a detractor of patent laws, and believer of medicines for all – who shake up the world stage by providing centers in Africa and around the world with HIV/AIDS medication at the cost price of their ingredients.
This is not a new story. Even Aamir Khan touched upon the subject extensively in one of his episodes of Satyameva Jayate. Both efforts – Khan and Gray – seek to educate and empower the populace.
While the content of Fire in the Blood is undeniably worth its weight in gold, the form Gray chooses to tell his story is outdated. The documentary as a form has seen great innovation in the last decade or so, but Gray sticks with the basics – adhering to interviews with footage intercuts with no overarching visual stylistic choices, an underwhelming narration by Hurt, and a flat score. Yes, budget plays a part but the telling could’ve been a lot more dramatic and reflective of the trailer, which was nothing short of sensational in its presentation.
Fire in the Blood makes the provocative allusion that what’s happening in the pharmaceutical world is nothing but a deep form of racism. But it is more, it is the greedy confluence of the worst forms of politics and private enterprise coming together to take a deadly toll on people. The conundrum for the third world is no doubt complex but when the cost of avoiding sanctions is the lives of millions, somewhere everyone’s priorities are questionable.