So, now I´ve finally gotten around to seeing the much lauded ”Dallas Buyers Club”, a movie interesting in more ways than you would initially think. First let´s just acknowledge leading man Matthew McConaughey, who´s simply on fire here and one of the fastest rising character actors in American cinema right now. After spending the first decade of the noughties doing a series of lacklustre romcoms, he´s now changed course and carved out an impressive and respectable niche for himself in acclaimed studio productions, as well as independent movies and TV-series (everybody who hasn´t already should rush to see the wonderful “True Detective”).
“Dallas Buyers Club” tells the story of hard-living electrician and rodeo aficionado Ron Woodroof, a homophobic womanizer unexpectedly diagnosed with full-blown AIDS in 1985 and subsequently given 30 days to live. At the time, no approved treatment for AIDS existed, and the first candidate AZT were in initial clinical trials. Faced with the only officially sanctioned option of either receiving placebo or the active substance, Ron decides to get his AZT himself, something that succeedes for a while without apparently making him any better. Upon the cut-off of his supply, he establishes contact with an unlicensed Mexican doctor who quickly discontinues Ron´s AZT-treatment, which had caused a series of adverse effects, and gives him another option of vitamins, the protein Peptide T and a new drug called ddC.
Together with cleaning up his act and discontinuing cocaine use and other addictions, this treatment seems to be working, reducing symptoms, making Ron feel better, and most important of all, not dying. In the face of a medical establishment intent on carrying on regular studies before releasing an unknown therapy for general use, Ron decides to smuggle the drugs into the US and supplying other AIDS-sufferers with the treatment for money. This was achieved in the form of a Buyers Club, where a monthly fee gives the member access to the medications, a concept repeated in many American cities at the time. The problems with authorities that this causes isn´t really that surprising, and eventually Ron´s operation closes down.
The arch of the story gives a lot of room to the maturing influence the disease has on Ron, moving from his initial pretty narrow-minded and frankly homophobic persona to a much more understanding and even caring individual. Some of this surely catalyzed by the reactions to the diagnosis by his friends, ostracizing him completely through their ignorance and fear. In other parts due to him realizing that the persons he´d previously viewed with such contempt are actually just human beings like himself.
At the time of the HIV/AIDS epidemic hitting the western world and gaining speed, I was first a medical student and then a young physician. Primarily being primed to diagnose and treat disease, nothing could have prepared me and my comrades for the stigmatizing effect that this particular illness would have on its sufferers. Back then it was viewed by many as a disease that you´d earned through faulty living, even though the only thing the haemophiliacs had done wrong was trusting the medical industry to supply them with safe medications, the intravenous drug abusers due to repressive policies sadly failing to get hold of clean syringes and the male homosexuals making the life-threatening error of being in love with a person of the same sex.
Infectious Disease Clinics in hospitals over the world were filled with young people dying in what is now considered a chronic but treatable condition, while public discourse treated them as modern time carriers of the Black Death, worthy of isolation and denigration. At our day and age, this shouldn´t need to be said, but I think I´ll do it anyway. HIV is a virus that can be transmitted through sexual intercourse and blood, not from everyday contacts like holding somebody´s hand or being in the same room as an infected person. People with HIV/AIDS are not fundamentally different from me and you, but have through a combination of misfortune and ill-informed choices acquired a potentially deadly disease. Ostracizing or discriminating these people is unworthy of a civilized society.
During a clinical training position in the middle of my medical studies, I met a young woman being treated for advanced manifestations of AIDS. As far as I could tell her only bad decision was falling in love with the wrong man, infecting her with the virus that would eventually lead to her demise. Sitting there one single night, in the darkness of a sick room listening to her story, strengthened my feelings of the unfairness of this devastating disease. This intelligent and beautiful woman did not deserve to be killed for loving another person. Nor should anybody else be.
In many ways this is a very powerful movie about a difficult subject, managing to emotionally transport me back to those times in the beginning of the HIV-epidemic when fear and ignorance ruled. Although we´ve come a long way since then, this stigmatization needs to be remembered. That said, I really dislike how some parts of this story is told. The physicians and scientists trying to get sound clinical data on AZT are much vilified, as is the drug itself despite still being an important part of HAART (highly active antiretroviral therapy). The frustration of seeing people die while waiting for the results of a new drug study is easily understandable, but doesn´t justify unsupervised human experimentation with unapproved chemicals or the selling of the same for profit.