It's one thing to hear that Washington D.C. has the worst HIV/AIDS problem in America. But when The Other City, a new documentary, says that "the capital city of the most powerful country on earth" has higher infection rates than Port-au-Prince and Dakar, the most surprising thing about the statistic may be that you haven't heard it before. -
As the title of Susan Koch's film suggests, one reason HIV/AIDS has devastated D.C. is that relatively few people, including the town's swarms of politicians, acknowledge it. But when the mayor announced a citywide 3% infection rate--an epidemic begins at 1%--people could no longer look away.
Shown for the first time on the big screen last night at the Tribeca Film Festival, The Other City exposes flaws in the fight against HIV through positive people who've suffered for them. There's the 28-year old single mother of three who deals with the standard 2-year waiting lists for government housing. Homelessness or a shelter aren't options since her medication needs to be refrigerated. And Ron Daniels, director of Washington's only needle exchange program who fights to lift the federal ban on the program. Jose educates Latino immigrants, particularly illegals who often fall through the cracks and end up prostitutes, about the dangers of unsafe sex. Finally, Koch goes inside Joseph's House, a community for those about to succumb to the disease that grapples with funding cuts.
Compelling and terribly sad stories and images from these people and places are interspersed with glossy B-roll footage of picturesque D.C. attractions like the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. But as moving as The Other City's subjects are, and as shameful as their proximity to the heart of a government that largely ignores them is--one interview subject says Congress could be cited in a wrongful death suit for its delayed response to the crisis--Koch could have given more historical background or reasons for why the epidemic is so out of hand in this specific city.
The Other City lacks a narrator and any sort of cinematic flourishes. At times it feels more like an extended news report than a movie. That's fine, but poetry and anger could have been effective.
Good thing Larry Kramer was there to pick up the slack during a post-screening panel discussion. The firebrand, Faggots author and Gay Men's Health Crisis co-founder is not the type to stew silently. So when guest speaker Surgeon General Regina Benjamin lauded President Obama's work to address the disease, Kramer shouted from the audience:
"He hasn't done shit. It's all useless! You're the Surgeon General. Where's your anger?"
Other audience members joined the chorus, although to Benjamin and the moderator's credit, they did not derail the discussion entirely. Actually, the outcry was a good thing. One of The Other City's arguments is that because HIV is no longer a death sentence, complacency has settled in. Anger is necessary. But it needs to be channeled.
The Other City will be a wake-up call to many viewers. But as Koch and other panelists explained, the real challenge in combating the huge scope of the HIV/AIDS issue is figuring out where to start.
Check additional screenings here.