Reviewed by Chael Needle
Directed by Leanne Whitney
August Moon Entertainment
Premiering on The Documentary Channel on June 6, The Fire Within is a frank and intimate look at two people who love and care for each other: one positive, one negative, both resilient.
The film, first released eight years ago, follows Bob Bowers [A&U, May 2009], an AIDS educator and activist, as he struggles to find a new combination therapy. His virus is drug-resistant and, as physician Dr. Bisher Akil tells him, he is down to two treatment options. The toll of the side effects, Bob says, has been emotional, spiritual, and physical. Before settling on the couch for the first interview, he vomits and washes up. Vomits again. “Welcome to my world,” he says. Later, Bob details the body aches, diarrhea, myalgia, and the neuropathy that forces him to use a wheelchair. The new combo that he eventually chooses, Sustiva, is causing mental strain; for a while, he sleeps with a gun close at hand.
The director also shows how managing HIV can be a “full-time job,” as Bob calls it. It’s not just taking twenty-four pills a day, as Bob does, or the tax on the body; it’s the work of weighing choices and making decisions; the work of soul-searching; and the work of nurturing a relationship where the other person often acts as a caregiver.
That person is Shawn, his wife at the time, who fell in love and married knowing that she was getting into a “relationship with Bob and HIV.” She was attracted to Bob’s vivaciousness and boyishness; his joie de vivre awakened what had been dead in her and energized her to work through her own “shit,” as she tells it. The film follows her as she participates in the seven-day AIDS/LifeCycle Ride, which is a San Francisco to Los Angeles cycling fundraiser. (The premiere coincides with the start day of this year’s AIDS/LifeCycle.) Though not an endurance athlete, Shawn wants to experience a “hint” of what her husband goes through. Bob works as crew in order to support her. Some days go somewhat well; some not-so-well. Shawn begins to doubt what accomplishing this goal actually means.
By the end, Bob wonders if he should switch to a salvage therapy; Shawn wonders if she should keep riding. Decisions are made, and, as always, Shawn and Bob articulate their thoughts and feelings with the clarity that comes with honest reflection. The director has captured something about resilience—it’s not particularly pretty; it’s not particularly transcendent. Resilience is a day-in, day-out struggle—its beauty comes from confronting the fact that life can sometimes get ugly and wear you down.
The Fire Within is now available on Netflix.