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Saturday, October 5, 2013

'Fire in the blood' at FSA2013: The essence of documentary-making

A chilling story of how big pharma issues death warrants to millions of world's poor.

Once upon a time, when non-fiction could not tell the whole story of the society, people resorted to fiction as a way to circumvent the obstacles that arose when they tried to honestly write/speak on a topic. Fiction gave them a certain degree of freedom to maneuver without inviting the wrath of the representatives of their characters in real life.

Centuries and millennia passed and the genre of fiction kept evolving. Masterpieces were written, narrated and played at theaters. But over the past century with extreme commercialization of every realm of art and literature, most bestselling novels and blockbuster movies no longer tell the true story of the societies around you. They rather manufacture something enticing and sensational that will carry you away from the reality. 

There are, however, exceptions. Many artists, litterateurs and activists are now struggling to break the vicious self-censorship enforced upon them by the market that keeps the profitability of any such venture at the center. They are out there with creations like the iconoclastic book 'Confessions of an Economic Hit Man' and the devastating play 'Bhopal'

These works are not intended to entice maximum number of people thereby making handsome profits; they rather attempt to make people aware of the reality that is being deluged by the flood of commercial books, movies and advertisements, to convey a message to the people and to stimulate them to think hard on pressing issues of the day.

It is in this context that the documentaries or non-fiction cinema occupy a discrete niche in the social discourse today: they tell the stories of people, places and events without circumlocutions. And when it comes to documentary films in Kathmandu, Film Southasia (FSA) and Kathmandu Int'l Mountain Film Festival (KIMFF) have been probably bringing the widest variety of such films. 

Among the first documentaries to be reviewed in this blog was Nima Sarvestani's 'I was worth 50 sheep' from FSA2011. After last year's KIMFF, I had passingly reviewed one documentary ‘Who will be a Gurkha’ by Kesang Tseten at this blog along with a book with related theme. This time in this first such review, I shall deal with one documentary 'Fire in the blood' that was screened on the first day of Film Southasia 2013. 

In one sentence, 'Fire in the blood' is a tale of how a nexus of some dozens of people running 10 or so leading multinational pharmaceutical companies collude to 'issue death warrants' to tens of millions of world's poor annually by making it impossible for them to buy the medicines at affordable prices.

In a sense, this is nothing new: from Michael Moore to Joseph Stiglitz, some prominent people even in US have been shedding light on the shoddy nature of the affair for very long and the resistance movements in countries like India and Brazil have got some, albeit marginal, attention in the mainstream media. But this documentary is outstanding for its closely knit stories from across the continents with inputs from many knowledgeable persons like Stiglitz and Desmond Tutu.

Development of a drug needs rigorous research process and that process has a cost. As a way to compensate the pharmaceuticals for that cost on research and development of the drug and to incentivize them for future research work, the governments let them 'patent' the drug in the same way as for other new inventions by letting them to have a monopoly on production and distribution of the product for a certain period (20 years in US).

Now the travesty: the right to patent new products has been used by the big pharma to take the lives of billions of people in the world by ransom. By hoodwinking the authorities and using the loopholes in the system, they have been able to patent a product for as long as 54 years (something I discovered from the documentary) forcing the wealthier patients to pay 'astronomical prices' and ensuring that the poor simply die without treatment.

The part of fleecing people apart, as Stiglitz has argued in his book ‘Making Globalization Work’, the very tool meant for promoting innovation is, in fact blocking innovation. As it happens in today’s setting, years of rigorous research on a new drug would incur substantial cost and effort. Alternatively, if one makes a minor change in an old product (whose patent has expired) like adding a single side chain in a complex molecule, the apparently new product will let the company to make a similar 'new' product at little cost. Patenting this apparently new but essentially old drug will make way for trillions of dollars more in profits. So, if a minuscule investment of few million dollars in a proxy new drug yields such astronomical revenue, why bother doing a genuine and draining research spending billions of dollors?

And now consider that in the face of the fact that a negligible amount between 1-1.5% of their revenue goes for future research while the rest going on dividends for the shareholders, and of course for the mammoth advertising sprees and for bribing the governments and lawmakers here and there. In the meantime more than 80% of the overall R&D cost of the new drugs is borne by the governments. 

 From a doctor who imported a plain-load of cheap generic drugs from India to Uganda risking arrest to help thousands of AIDS-patient there to a HIV-positive South African who stopped taking ARV only to take it again after the government pledged the access of all the HIV-infected people in the country to the drugs, people have done commendable jobs to help the poor and their parts in the documentary give us a ray of hope in an otherwise depressing scenario.

Even though the documentary primarily revolves around the worldwide struggle for cheap generic ARVs used in treatment of HIV patients, it opens the whole can of worms that today's drug-making business is. And while the victories so far in ensuring the access of poor people to affordable generic drugs have been commendable, the fight is far from over as the big money of the pharmaceuticals is ruthlessly fighting back to sustain the monopoly.

In a sense, the implications of such struggle reach far and wide and a recent verdict of an Indian court to defeat a Swiss company in a protracted battle for its patent right in India for an anti-cancer drug imatinib patented as 'Glivec' was one more welcome development.

While the small wars keep being won or lost, the grand battle drags on with increasing intensity. And 'Fire in the blood' has done a commendable job of spreading awareness about this issue little known in most parts of the world.

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