“We thought everybody forgot what we did.”
When TV and film producer Brendan Gaul first set out into the world of documentary filmmaking, he had a mission—to change the perception of nurses, their workload and the difference they actually make within their field.
Gaul, a Philadelphia native who grew up in the Northeast and Bucks County, first went to film school in Brooklyn, but landed a job in advertising shortly after. It was there where he teamed up with one of his clients, Johnson & Johnson, and did some research on what people actually believed about the nursing field—and it came as no surprise that TV and film had a lot to do with that impact.
“We looked deeply into why there was an issue with perceptions of nurses in the first place. Why didn’t people think they were heroic, or skilled or innovative? What we found is that it’s because of the way nurses are portrayed in TV and film,” Gaul explains.
Typically Johnson & Johnson would run ads to help support those in the world of nursing, but the company and the filmmaker soon realized to fight the big movies, they needed to come out with one on their own. The project wouldn’t exactly have explosions or car chases in the budget, but the story they decided to pursue certainly has heroes—they just wear scrubs instead of capes.
“We knew that if we wanted to move the perception of nurses to be heroic, we needed a big dragon to slay or a really big event to respond to or overcome,” Gaul continues.
Eventually, the team landed on one of the biggest crises that had happened in the past few decades (note, when they set out this was a few years before COVID.)
“We realized that there are so many stories that have been told about the HIV/Aids crisis, but none that really have taken the perspective or [have been told] from the nurses or caregivers’ points of view. Then, we found not only were the nurses still around and excited to tell their story, but also there is a whole lot of footage to back it up,” explains Gaul.
The team of filmmakers then set out to start working on ‘5b,’ in 2016, and they were able to acquire footage from both CBS (used for different segments of ’60 Minutes’) and from local news reporter Hank Plante to help immerse audiences into the story and make it feel like real-time.
“It has a very different kind of feel to it,” Gaul says. The filmmaker also goes in to talk about the fact that many people in the past would have no idea what nurses really did simply because of the fact that they never interacted with them in a hospital setting. Those of us who have—whether being sick, pregnant or in the healthcare field—had a little more understanding on what went on in their day to day.
The year 2020 certainly changed that perception.
“It’s so interesting because now people have a very different impression of nurses because we all lived through the past few years,” Gaul continues. “COVID has touched all of us in one way or another, and I do think because of that, more and more people have an understanding of not just nurses, but also frontline healthcare workers and how important they are to our lives every day.”
‘5b’ was released in 2018 (it’s available to screen now on Amazon Prime), but the impact suddenly felt even more relevant after its premiere—which by the way, was at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco during SF Docs with lines of people around the block to be the first to screen it.
“It’s so wild because I also have found just in my interaction with the subjects of the film, once a nurse always a nurse. Some of the subjects of the film now are in their 70s and 80s and they have been retired, but they went back out there for COVID. [They] got suited up, put their masks on and did what they could because they had a certain experience that they could bring to the front,” Gaul explains.
Co-directed by Oscar winner Paul Haggis and Academy Award nominee Dan Krauss, ‘5b’ is heavily awarded, and even got its first major premiere at the Cannes Film Festival—known widely as the most prestigious event in its category. Gaul tells a story about how when the nurses from the film got out of their cars and onto the red carpet (which they were sharing with ‘Rocketman’ that night), the music changed to then play ‘California Dreaming.’ It was kismet to be alongside a production on Elton John, who has long been an advocate for HIV/Aids.
“It was so amazing to be sitting there in the South of France and have that song play as these nurses were finally recognized for what they had done,” Gaul remembers. “They said: We thought everybody forgot what we did.”
Gaul will be gaining some recognition of his own this month right here in Philadelphia. The local will be returning to the City of Brotherly Love to show a special screening of ‘5b’ at Thomas Jefferson University’s Nursing School from May 11 to 13. The college has chosen Gaul to give the Commencement Address—becoming the school’s first in-person Commencement speaker since the onset of the pandemic—and they will also bestow him with an Honorary Doctor of Science Degree.
“The film has changed my life and brought some amount of success and all of this for me… But its so meaningful to be able to shine a spotlight on what these nurses did almost 40 years ago and let them know that they’re not forgotten. Their service is recognized and their stories inspire nurses on the frontlines today, ” Gaul explains. “But, most importantly, to have broader audiences have a better understanding of what nurses do and what it is to be a nurse… I think we’ve achieved that.”
And Gaul will showcase next week just how meaningful their work is still to this day.
“When we were working on the film, it really was around being skilled, being innovative and being heroic,” he explains. “If you look at the film, they responded to HIV/Aids at a time when it wasn’t even named. It was ‘Gay Cancer’ and no on knew how you could get it.”
Cliff Morrison, one of the subjects of ‘5b’ who was there from the start and raised alarm bells and saw the isolation, the stigma and the outcry puts it best in the documentary: “I was scared, but I was more angry at what was going on, and I had to do something.”
The nurses at that time had no idea that they would live as long as they did. And why would they when everyone else around them was dying?
“Many of them are in a place that they didn’t plan for,” Gaul finishes. “It’s just interesting through social lives, and financial aspects and things— they really did feel like they were putting their lives on the line and they didn’t think that they were going to make it out.”
‘5b’ shows real heroes in real time and the real impact they have had, and will have, on the world as nurses. And that might make it the most compelling “superhero” story of all.
To learn more about Brendan Gaul and his work on ‘5b’ plus other upcoming projects (the filmmaker has a few more in the work including one on the Gay history of New Hope, PA) visit 5bfilm.com and imdb.com