An alternate title to Dylan Mohan Gray’s Fire in the Blood could well be “Big Trouble for Big Pharma”. The 87-minute documentary boils down an ocean’s worth of information and interviews collected at different times and from different countries into a cogent and engaging film about the politics of drug pricing. Fire in the Blood, which has been screened at several festivals, including Sundance, will open in select cinemas on 11 October through the PVR Director’s Rare distribution platform.
Gray’s film examines the battle between multinational pharmaceutical companies and health activists and governments over the pricing of anti-retroviral drugs for HIV/AIDS patients. Described in publicity material as “an intricate tale of medicine, monopoly and malice”, the documentary retraces the health crisis in South Africa in the mid-1990s, the non-availability of drugs due to their extraordinarily high prices, the campaign by health activists against Big Pharma, and the game-changing role played by Yusuf Hamied’s Cipla. By supplying generic versions of anti-HIV drugs to the AIDS-stricken country, the Indian company radically altered the rules of the game and made Hamied a shining knight in the activist community.
Gray, who is half-Irish and half-Punjabi and was raised in Canada, has personal ties with Hamied—he is married to the Cipla chairperson’s niece, Rumana. The family connection helped the 44-year-old film-maker with access and information, but his film is about a larger, and pressing issue, rather than one man, he told Mint Lounge. Edited excerpts from an interview.
How did you carve a coherent narrative out of a thicket of information about a subject that doesn’t easily lend itself to a film?
We wrote a screenplay—these days, you don’t get to make a documentary unless you have a screenplay. The days of somebody giving you the money to wander the ends of the earth are over. I wanted the film to be simple without being simplistic. The ambition was to make a film that could be shown on the big screen to a global audience. The script turned out to be very different from what we ended up with. There was so little written about the subject, and getting to work with the people who made key contributions changed many of the ideas. During the years it took to make the film, things in the world were also changing. It took us a long time to reach a point where we felt that the film had a natural flow. We shot between March 2008 till the end of 2010, and completed the edit only in 2012.
Your anti-Big Pharma position is clear, but you make your case through arguments rather than polemics.
I didn’t want to make a polemical film that would harangue people. I feel that this is a crime story, which is why it was important to take a forensic approach. That can only happen when you make a film that is rigorous in terms of being factual. If you are going to make an argument to intelligent people, you want the argument to be intelligent. I am not trying to appeal to people’s sob story side.
My academic background is in history, and I am interested in historiography, how history gets written and used as a narrative. But there is a fundamental rejection of objectivity—it is dangerous to present yourself as being fully objective.
When I initially thought of the project, I had a different approach. I was supposed to make a much angrier film, I wanted people to approach the subject as a Holocaust. But when I started talking to people, I realized that there were other aspects to the issue. The people who were the heroes in this story, they nearly always said that they were to blame for their initial inertia, which allowed the situation to carry on. The people who pushed back felt that they hadn’t pushed hard enough. Rather than a film about who is to blame, it became about how we allowed this to happen. It also became obvious that the groundwork was being laid for something similar to happen again in the future. The pharmaceutical industry generates profits from monopolies that are given by governments. The real villains of the piece are governments who do the bidding of pharma companies.
Except for a former Pfizer employee, the documentary doesn’t feature any Big Pharma representatives.
I wanted everybody in the film to be connected with the issue directly. The people who run the companies today are a generation or two removed from the people who took those decisions. The people who retire or move on to other companies usually sign non-disclosure agreements. The companies skilfully deflected the story and said that they had weeded out the bad apples, which is not always the case. The former Pfizer executive is the only one who fits the condition.
Your personal connection with Hamied could undermine the film’s credibility.
My wife Rumana is Dr Hamied’s niece—he has a lot of nieces. The personal connection didn’t hurt me in any way, but I had to be very careful to avoid conflict of interest. I had to have an extra arm’s length. If the film had only been about Dr Hamied, I would not have made it. I felt comfortable because I took a factual approach and didn’t make the film only about him.
Fire in the Blood opens on 11 October at PVR Cinemas multiplexes. The Asia Society India Centre will screen the documentary on 10 October at PVR Cinemas, Phoenix Mills, Lower Parel, Mumbai. To get passes, email firstname.lastname@example.org