In the long shadows cast by the Capitol and the White House exists a Washington, D.C., on the outermost periphery of the power and influence that the nation's capital represents. And within this penumbra of powerlessness and invisibility, HIV/AIDS and taken root and threatens to overwhelm and destroy entire neighborhoods. Want an OMG statistic? At least 3 percent of the capital city's population is HIV-positive — far surpassing the 1 percent threshold that constitutes a "generalized and severe" epidemic. This is according to the United Nations Joint Program on HIV/AIDS and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is the sort of language and numbers used to describe HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.
In the perceptive and powerful new documentary, The Other City, which is currently making the festival circuit, audiences are introduced to local D.C. residents who are both infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. The Other City follows their struggle to attain the basics such as housing and medical care. And the not-so-basic: a place to die with dignity. The film is written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, directed by Susan Koch, writer and co-director of Kicking It, and was produced by philanthropist Sheila C. Johnson.
Through the film we meet Jose, who was infected when he was 17 and now spends his days ministering to Latino youth about HIV/AIDS prevention. There is Ron, who runs a needle-exchange program; it's estimated that one-third of those with the virus contracted it through dirty needles. There is J'Mia, a single mother of three, whom the film follows on her quest to find adequate housing for her family. As a 29-year-old African-American woman living with HIV, she falls into the ballooning demographic that evidences AIDS as the leading cause of death for black women 24 to 34. And there is Jimmy, a 35-year-old gay white man, who comes to the doors of Joseph's House, a home for those in the final stages of the disease.
There are other voices as well: U.S. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.; David Catania, chairman of the D.C. Health Committee; and HIV/AIDS activist Larry Kramer. They are able, to some degree, to put into perspective how D.C., through government and society's indifference and lack of funding, has reached this ominous juncture. What is important to remember is while the film is specifically about D.C., the same exact situation is happening all across the United States in inner-city and poor communities. (Full disclosure: I'm on the board of directors of Iris House, a Harlem-based organization that administers to those infected with and affected by HIV/AIDS.)
And yet, to the filmmakers' credit, the documentary never descends into maudlin self-pity or a superior "look at these poor folks" attitude. You want real? This is as real as it gets. And the people we come to know are struggling to survive not just their infections, but the sometime ambivalent response the rest of us evidence.
Even today, more than two decades into the epidemic, AIDS still comes with a stigma. "With this film, I feel it is time to restart the conversation about a devastating epidemic that is not going away," says Vargas. "To me The Other City is America's underclass as told through a virus."
Nick Charles is a regular contributor to The Root.