“Watch what you eat and who you eat.” It’s lines like that, delivered by a shockingly gaunt Matthew McConaughey, who lost 50 pounds to play the true-life character of Ron Woodroof in the movie Dallas Buyers Club, that give the film an authentic edge. The movie was a hit at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, telling the story of how Woodroof became an accidental AIDS activist during the crises in the 1980s and 1990s. After discovering he was HIV-positive, he smuggled in much-needed life-saving drugs from around the world as the Food and Drug Administration played games with policy, politics and questionable relationships between pharmaceutical companies.
His redneck, chick-banging character starts off lamenting that Rock Hudson had access to all that “pussy” and it was completely wasted on someone who smoked his friends. Woodroof transforms throughout the film, however, as he becomes, in the words of the FDA, a drug dealer, but he never loses that caustic edge that kept him fighting against a system that was failing to save lives and threatening to kill him.
The film is eye-opening from a historical perspective and resonates today. At a special screening in Toronto to raise funds for Dignitas International, a Toronto-based organization that provides HIV treatment and prevention in countries with limited resources, sobering comparisons were made to the lack of access to medication during the early days of the epidemic in the US and the situation today in developing countries.
“Ten million people are receiving treatment at $64 per year for generic medication,” says James Orbinski, a doctor with Dignitas. But, he points out, “18 million people in the developing world still need access. The story of Ron is the struggle for access to treatment, as imperfect as it is.”
“The single largest challenge today is creating a pediatric formulation for HIV treatment,” Orbinski adds. “More than two million kids have HIV in the developing world. They are the poorest of the poor. They are not a marketable population. It’s left to charities like Dignitas [to address their health needs] . . . Children can’t swallow tablets. They have sensitive gastrointestinal systems with a low tolerance for medications. They have to be coated in a specialized compound in a formulation that kids can tolerate and be appropriate in an environment with low access to refrigeration.”
Issues such as these may not be front and centre in Dallas Buyers Club, but it does connect the past to the very real challenges of the present. As Woodroof puts it, when being told to attend a support group because it will take a year to join a trial study of AZT (in which half the terminally ill participants will receive a placebo), “I’m dying and you’re telling me to go get a hug by a bunch of faggots.”
Spoiler alert: he does eventually get that hug.