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I remember seeing the bus station ads: “AIDS is D.C.’s Katrina.” Shocking statement. Passed in and out of my head as quickly as I walked by.
But none of those reminders really sink in if there’s nothing to remind you of in the first place. I’ve never personally known anyone with the disease, nor been to a clinic where people are visibly affected; There’s no visceral experience for any kind of symbol or slogan to evoke.
That’s why a new documentary that’s been screening at festivals around the country this year, The Other City, is essential watching for anyone who calls Washington home. Filmed in a hospice, at homeless shelters, on buses, at needle exchanges, in clubs, on Capitol Hill, everywhere that the story of AIDS plays out, it illustrates this 30-year-old epidemic’s greatest paradox: How it touches almost every aspect of society, and yet can still be so completely ignored.
Former Washington Post reporter Jose Antonio Vargas serves as a character like Dante’s Virgil, framing the stories in context. But the film is otherwise completely carried by individuals fighting the disease: J’Mia Edwards, a 28-year-old mother of three, talks of the choice between having unprotected sex for money or sleeping on the street. Jose Ramirez, an HIV positive gay activist, walks through a dark park where no safe sex happens, handing out condoms as he goes. Ron Daniels, a veteran who got AIDS through drug abuse, takes us from shooting galleries to the House, where Republican representatives argued against lifting the federal ban on needle exchange, which allowed AIDS to grow into an epidemic in the first place.
“It’s worse than war,” says one inmate of the hospice Joseph’s House, who left when he didn’t progress towards death as quickly as all the people dying around him.
There’s an anadorned realism to extremely intimate scenes; The camera doesn’t flinch away from dead bodies or drug users. Equally powerful, though, is the way director Susan Koch instills a sense of time in the interwoven narratives. The camera follows J’Mia’s frantic rush to find all the documents she needs to apply for a subsidized apartment, only to find the waiting list is two years long. And it returns again and again to the bedside of 35-year-old Jimmy, who’s had AIDS since he was 18, as his family watches him slip away.
J’Mia, who is now a caseworker, sat on a panel at the end of the screening last night at E Street Theater. As if the audience hadn’t already gotten the message, the first questioner was a homeless man who had had AIDS for 20 years and wanted to know how he could help.
Another group that seems like it’s gotten the message is the Department of Health, which sponsored the free screening (and another one, tonight, at 7:00 p.m.). Director Pierre Vigilance—whose predecessor was fired in part for a failure to address the AIDS problem—moderated the panel, and admitted some surprise that the DOH had decided to use the documentary as a tool.* But with funding scarce, and a public still largely blind to the problem, it might be the most powerful tool he’s got.
The credits roll to John Legend, whose lyrics take on a new significance:
Cause everybody knows, that nobody really knows
How to make it work, or how to ease the hurt
Weve heard it all before, that everybody knows
Just how to make it right, I wish we gave it one more try
* CLARIFICATION, 12:15 p.m. – DOH spokeswoman Dena Iverson notes that sponsoring the screening was Vigilance’s idea, so he wasn’t surprised at the agency’s choice; rather, he was addressing any potential surprise from the audience.