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Bad Blood: A Cautionary Tale (DVD Review)

27 Jun, 2011 By: Mike Clark

$24.99 DVD
Not rated.

The lines of personal and clinical filmmaking intersect to maximum power in a landmark story of how the hemophiliac community got contaminated by a drug designed to help them. Previously, the term “bad blood” had been associated with the horrific Tuskegee syphilis experiment on unknowing African-American guinea pigs that spanned the 1930s through the ‘70s, a phony term the doctors bogusly tossed around to explain the subjects’ malady. But in this case, the blood really was bad — contaminated, in fact.

Some documentaries on PBS run only an hour, but I don’t think that would have been long enough to construct the kind of history director Marilyn Ness has assembled over 82 minutes. Ness was a lifelong friend of one of the central hemophiliacs interviewed here and originally intended for her film to be more limited in its context. Then the friend — health activist Mathew Kleiner — died of hepatitis and a HIV infection contracted from a blood transfusion received years earlier, and Ness was left with the footage and practically a mandate to expand the scope of her film. This is one of those cases where it is crucially instructional to view the filmmaker interview included as a DVD bonus, which in this case turns about 15 minutes. For one thing, you get a real sense of Ness’s compassion and struggle to get the story right.

Her groundwork in the opening half-hour enables us to understand what it was like growing up with hemophilia before the 1960s, when there wasn’t much help or hope at all. Less a life of external bleeding (the common perception), it was instead one of bruises, internal bleeding, a life removed from sports and other rite-of-passage activities plus countless trips to the hospital every year, including over many holidays (which also took a massive toll on one’s parents).

The change came in the ‘60s with a new advanced treatment of “clotting factor concentrates” which eventually could be injected at home. And it really was a miracle, except that danger of hepatitis was a viable side effect. But as terrible as this was by itself, the treatment eventually ran smack into the advent of the AIDS crisis during an era when it was still possible for donors to sell blood for cash. And if you had to sell blood, you were quite possibly a derelict — or, if not, still someone not motivated to admit to an official that what you were donating had any health-related drawbacks. It took a lot of donors to make a vial of this concentrate, and Ness gives us a dramatic shot from some lab/factory of a technician pouring the blood of many donors into a barrel. And though the following parallel doesn’t hold because people need blood in a way they don’t need steaks, the shot still brings to mind those people who say that if you ever work in a butcher shop, you’ll be a vegetarian for life.

Still, everyone (doctors and patients) remembered how bad matters were before this much advanced treatment, and there wasn’t much inclination for those in the know to publicize the dangers (and patients remained tragically oblivious) for a long time. At this point the story becomes the title’s “cautionary tale” with a muckraking dimension straight out of an Upton Sinclair novel. How much did the understaffed FDA (which was pretty cozy with the pharmaceutical companies) know? How much did the pharmaceutical companies know? (The answer to this one will not fill you with warm feelings toward your fellow man.) How, when the ramifications were finally known, could this stuff have possibly been exported to other countries? (It brings to mind Paul Newman wanting to unload the hoof-and-mouthed cattle in Hud to some unsuspecting customer.) How is it that the U.S. never seems to punish people for these criminal acts or at least unforgivable screw-ups the way other countries do? A couple doctors in France did time over this scandal, there were prosecutions in Canada, and there’s a dramatic shot here of a Japanese transgressor being made to get on his knees in one of those famously familiar acts of cultural humiliation.

All in all, about 10,000 hemophiliacs contracted AIDS and 15,000 got hepatitis — the worst medical disaster in U.S. history. Things only changed (and eventually they did) when the hemophiliac community got angry and took matters into its own hands. In other words, the same way health and social shortcomings always change — via activism. Yet the tone here is reportorial, compassionate and mournful — and Ness has done a stellar job of finding people from all sides to go on record, which cannot have been easy.

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