Today: February 21, 2024

Director Dylan Mohan Gray

Mumbai-based director Dylan Mohan Gray tells Shelley Marsden about his documentary Fire In The Blood, the first film to tell the full story of AIDS drugs and how poor countries were stopped from using them.

director Dylan Mohan Gray tells Shelley Marsden about his documentary Fire In
The Blood, the first film to tell the full story of AIDS drugs and how poor
countries were stopped from using them.

A deeply complex story about
“medicine, monopoly and malice”, Fire In The Blood reveals the true,
but previously untold story, of how pharmaceutical companies and Western
governments effectively blocked access to low-cost AIDS drugs – and the group of
very gutsy people who decided to fight back, some risking their own lives to do

Fire In The Blood is an epic piece of
work, shot on four continents and including contributions from high-profile
figures like Bill Clinton, Desmond Tutu and Joseph Stiglitz, as well as fascinating behind-the-scenes
characters such as the HIV positive man who was treated with antivirals while
on the brink of death, got his health back and even went on to win major
bodybuilding competitions. But this film, as Moran says, isn’t about pointing
the finger at the bad guys. It reveals an inspirational coalition of people who
came together to stop what he calls ‘the crime of the century’ and save
millions of lives while doing so. If you stop and reflect on the fact that AIDS
can affect people in every country and from every walk of life, this is thought
provoking – and then some.

was your first documentary – that’s quite a topic to kick off with…

Yeah, it was the first feature-length
film I’d done. The work I’d done before wasn’t in documentaries, so when I
started getting excited about this topic, I didn’t really envisage it being
something I’d do myself. I actually tried to get some friends interested in
taking it on! It was clear it was going to be a really big, daunting job, so it
nearly frightened me off. But one day I just woke up and decided nobody’s going
to make this if I don’t. I actually had another film all lined up to go, but I
ended up chucking that! I felt like, if I waited another two years to do this,
the story would be lost to a large degree. A lot of the characters who
contribute to the film had never been asked the questions I asked them in ten
years and it was clear, even in my initial discussions with them, that they
were beginning to forget details. I had to do it. And in a way, though I did
feel a huge weight of responsibility, whatever I did I knew was better than
doing nothing.

did the inspiration first come for Fire In the Blood?

It was 2004, and I was working on a
film in Sri Lanka. I happened to have the day off, and I remember picking up a
copy of The Economist, a few months
old, and I happened to read about one of the characters in the film, Yusuf Hamied from Bombay (key in
creating and making widely available anti-viral drugs). I was quite taken aback
because this was a story I knew nothing about, and I feel I’m a pretty
well-informed person. It interested me, too, that the approach of the article
was quite antagonistic towards him. He was clearly doing something good, so
there was obviously something interesting going on under the surface here! My
friend was with me at the time, and incredibly, chimed in that he knew this man
and could organise a meeting if I wanted. So it was the chance to meet this guy
in person too. Through him I met other key characters in the film – it put
everything in context for me.

your interest was duly peaked, then …?

Absolutely. Before I even decided to do
a film I started reading around the subject obsessively and realising there was
something very strange going on. I was reading contemporary news reports. My
background is in history and I studied the whole history of AIDS medicine and
it was incredible to me that nobody had done a film on this before. It killed
double the number of people that died during the Holocaust, but there had been
no book written about it, no film about. It’s insane. It’s like people were
completely forgotten. It made me very angry as well. There’s so much attention
paid in the media to relatively trivial things – which is fine, everyone has to
blow off steam – but it seemed unreal to me that there was, even then, huge
amounts of money being pumped into AIDs, billions of dollars from the World
Health Organisation and other massive organisations, yet nobody can spare a
moment to take a step back and say, what happened here?

the dark truth of this film essentially the monopoly of big pharmaceutical
companies making products for a tiny percentage of the world’s population?

It’s interesting, I spoke to a lot of
pharma people who didn’t want to come on camera because either they were
constrained by agreements they signed when they left their companies, or
because they were still working there. When I started out, I had to decide what
kind of film to make, and one of the options was to make a real ‘name and
shame’ film saying look: a massive crime has happened against humanity, and
here are the people that have never been called to account. That would have
been an important film, but I decided it was more important to tell the story
in a more dispassionate way, and let it serve as a warning call, so we don’t
repeat the same things again. Initially, I was for the name and shame approach,
but when I started talking to the people in the film, many of whom I consider
to be great heroes, they started changing my mind.

did they do that?

I asked these people ‘Who is to blame
for what happened?’ I asked everyone this question and interestingly, almost
all of them answered the same way. They said we’re all to blame. That sounds
like a cliché, but the thing is, the world was not made aware of this properly.
Even those that tried, they didn’t do it the right way. They didn’t realise the
magnitude of what was going on, or whatever it was. Obviously some people were
more to blame than others, but even the likes of campaigner, Zackie Achmat [who refused start
antiretroviral treatment for AIDs until the South African government agreed to
implement a publicly-funded national treatment program], felt he failed to make
a difference. That’s what steered me away from pointing the finger at people.

are some incredible figures in this film. Who had the biggest impact on you?
Dr Mugyenyi
from Kampala, was quite a surprise. Doing my research, for some
reason I ended up not focusing on him but almost by accident stumbled on his
story. He’d written this book about his experiences called Genocide By Denial which I think is the best first-hand account
that has been written about AIDS and its history. This guy was a hugely
important figure in all of this, and ended up becoming one in my film.
Audiences respond very strongly to him, his sacrifice and his passion. Somebody
else that’s important for Western audiences especially is Jamie Love. He wasn’t HIV-positive. He wasn’t in the AIDS world. He
wasn’t in the health world. He didn’t have to do anything, he just saw a huge
injustice going on, and couldn’t understand why he couldn’t get a simple
question answered (how much is the physical cost of producing ARV drugs per
day). He kept going and, ultimately, put the coalition together and ended up
changing the world. To me that’s inspirational. Unlike like 99.9% of other
people, he kept going until he got that number – a dollar a day – and they were
selling it for 16,000 dollars a year! He forced people to take notice. Towards
the end of the film, he says, “We don’t have to accept the future that is being
presented to us, we can all do something.” We all have the power to make some
change, and he’s emblematic of that in the film.

this ultimately your hope about what Fire In The Blood could do (the last line
“Don’t let there be a sequel’ seems quite a call to arms)?

Absolutely. It’s easy to forget as so
many people have benefited from antiretrovirals in Africa and the rest of the
developing world, that people at the time said, ‘you can’t do it’. The people
that appear in our film were ridiculed, laughed at, accused of raising false
hope. There were very few people who were speaking up at the time for treating
people in poor countries, and the adversaries were as big as they come – the
most powerful governments working on behalf of the most powerful companies.
Even your so-called allies, activists within the medical community were not on
your side. And yet they still did it, they won the day. Now, people have a lot more
information. Our task in a sense is much easier. I think we can achieve a lot
with this film, and people I hope will have very important conversations. The
answers to the questions are not that complicated. There’s been a big lie
perpetrated, but it’s not that hard to debunk. I’m optimistic that we can
rattle some cages with this film.

IN THE BLOOD is in select UK cinemas 22 and 25 February.

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