OIFF Review: 'Fire in the Blood'

Fire in the Blood
(USA, 84 min.)
Written and directed by Dylan Mohan Gray
Narrated by William Hurt
One of the trickiest mistakes to make while reviewing documentaries is to conflate the newsworthiness of the film’s subject with the quality of the film itself. An essential component that separates documentary film from journalism is the blend of an intriguing and/or provocative topic handled with an eye for cinematic storytelling. A good documentary should do more than offer a point-and-shoot approach to a hot topic. It’s just as often the delivery that inspires the audience to take the message beyond the running time of the film.

Fire in the Blood is an odd case where the topic is of unquestionable value, but the formulaic delivery of the message instills little passion within a viewer. The film takes as its topic the inequitable gap in treatment that has plagued the HIV/AIDS epidemic for years as affordable generic drugs have been denied to afflicted persons in Africa who need treatment, but simply cannot afford the prices that American pharmaceutical companies ask them to pay. Director Dylan Mohan Gray presents a wealth of information and opinion to show that there is no room for question on this subject: capitalism shouldn’t prosper by upping the profit margin on a person’s right to live.

Fire in the Blood has a legitimate argument that deserves to be heard by a wide audience; however, the delivery simply doesn’t do the thesis justice. Fire in the Blood is a dry expository account of facts and talking heads, which even includes former US President Bill Clinton as one of the experts championing the cause. The film takes the standard grade-school essay formula of telling something, then telling the audience what was told to them, and then telling them again. The overwrought and cliché-ridden voiceover narration by William Hurt doesn’t help, either, as Fire in the Blood doesn’t say anything particularly new on the subject, nor does it say it more compellingly so than the films that came before it. Fact or fiction films: even The Constant Gardener takes better aim at Big Pharma than Fire does.

Fire in the Blood is all over the map in terms of content, tone, and angle. It veers from emotionally exploitative one moment, offering sentimental musical cues to accompany still images of bodies ravaged by disease, and then veers into an ominous baseline the next moment as it pounds a gavel with heavy-handed sermonizing. The argument by the talking heads and the add-on graphs, voice-over, and title cards make the polemic against Big Pharma sound so conspiratorial that some snippets of Fire in the Blood actually undermine the sound reasoning behind the film’s objective. The film almost seems misguided by its overheated passion. One hopes, however, that the worthy topic of the film might lead viewers to explore some of the journalism and literature discussed in the film.

Fire in the Blood should make one’s blood boil, but the treatment of the subject barely raises one’s pulse above the beat of ennui. Parties interested in seeing a compelling, persuasive, and altogether more forceful tale of the need to combat HIV/AIDS in the Third World might best seek out this year’s gripping Hot Docs selection Blood Brother from director Steve Hooper. Blood Brother fully realizes how a cinematic treatment of a necessary subject matter can use art for activism, as anyone who sees the film will surely be captivated by its opening scene and be on the edge of his or her seat as they witness the efforts of one man to better the lives of children afflicted with the disease. The disparity between the two films isn’t reason alone to dissuade one from seeing Fire in the Blood, but the misguidedness of Fire’s impassioned tangents aren’t likely to prompt the same kind of response or reaction the subject requires. The topic deserves attention; the film, unfortunately, doesn’t merit the same esteem.

Rating: ★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Fire in the Blood screened at the Ottawa International Film Festival October 4.