The Other City

Invisible Lives

Despair and Hope in the Other D.C.
by Larry Buhl

A neighborhood in Washington, DC, close to the Capitol. Photo by Jonah Koch, courtesy of Cabin Films

Most would agree that the fight against AIDS has made tremendous progress in nearly thirty years. But they would be surprised that in some parts of the United States, as far as AIDS goes, it’s still 1985.

Not far from the National Mall, the White House, and the Capitol Building sits another Washington, D.C., so close to tourist attractions and the halls of government that it seems like a parallel universe. The feature-length documentary The Other City shines a light on this world and explores the lives of people dealing with AIDS and struggling with poverty and even homelessness, in the shadow of our government. The Other City puts real faces on an issue that most politicians, and most Americans, don’t even understand: The AIDS epidemic is still with us.

The Other City premiered at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, received rave reviews at Los Angeles’ Outfest and began a theatrical run in several U.S. cities September. There were also packed screenings at the International AIDS Conference in Vienna, a response that encouraged the director, Susan Koch.
“People at the conference didn’t realize that AIDS was so prevalent in the United States,” Koch told A&U magazine. “The United States had been telling other countries what to do regarding HIV/AIDS, but until this year we didn’t have our own national AIDS strategy.”

Meet the invisibles
The disease and its sufferers in D.C. were allowed to fade to invisibility over the past fifteen years, to the point where the city’s HIV/AIDS rate that is not only the nation’s highest, but rivals some African countries.

“An AIDS fatigue set in,” says Washington Post reporter and The Other City writer, Jose Antonio Vargas. Because Vargas is one of the few journalists still covering AIDS extensively for a mainstream newspaper, Koch tapped him to help her tell the story of those struggling with the disease behind the cloak of invisibility.

“When I mention to people that I cover AIDS in America, they say, ‘Oh, I thought that was over.’ The editor of Essence magazine told me that readers keep asking why they are writing about AIDS. People are not dying like in the eighties and nineties. There are medications now and that’s a good thing. But people are still dying.”

“People think AIDS is just in Africa now,” Koch says, adding that for some people in the U.S. the situation is even worse than in the days when AIDS was in the public consciousness. “The stigma never went away. It’s not in your face anymore, but it’s still in the closet.”

J'Mia Edwards, a young mother living with AIDS, fights to keep housing for her three young children. Photo by Jonah Koch, courtesy of Cabin Films
One of the former “invisibles” is a black mother with AIDS, three kids, and terminal exhaustion in addition to being on the brink of losing her apartment. The film also profiles a young Latino man who contracted AIDS as a teen by being too trusting of his older partner, a middle-aged black man struggles with AIDS and homelessness, and a white man of thirty-five, Jimmy, who moved into a hospice after his med regimen stopped working.

Koch and Vargas made a conscious effort to show the lives of people with AIDS from all demographic groups. “People with AIDS in D.C. are living in their own silos,” Vargas says. “The black AIDS group doesn’t want to talk to the Hispanic AIDS group, who doesn’t want to know about the women with AIDS and none of them think they have anything in common with white gay men. In this film we wanted every demographic represented so nobody could say that it wasn’t about them.”

“It was their own fault.”
Vargas underscores what he sees as a prevailing attitude in society. That is, with all the information available now, any adult who contracts HIV must be willfully ignorant, careless, or deliberately reckless. The Other City doesn’t refute that idea so much as put it into context. Everyone with AIDS in the film admits to doing something they shouldn’t have. Why they did what they did makes more sense when you look at the bigger picture. One woman, J’Mia Edwards, was upfront about how she got HIV: poverty. If the only way to put a roof over her kids’ heads means sleeping with an unsavory man who won’t wear a condom, she’ll do it.

“People say it’s their own fault for getting AIDS, but AIDS is tied to inequalities and disparities. There is drug use and poverty that make it a complex problem that can’t be taken in isolation. Everyone has a responsibility: self, government and society.”

The film is not a howl of anguish, nor is it fueled by rage against government inaction, which marked the early AIDS fight. But the local government doesn’t come off looking very effective. Through a strange glitch in the law, the District of Columbia couldn’t even use its own tax dollars for a needle-exchange program. The U.S. Congress had to approve the budget, and needle-exchange programs are anathema to many lawmakers. In 2007 Congress finally allowed D.C. to use its own city funds for needle exchange, more than twenty-five years after the genesis of the epidemic. Washington Post columnist Colbert King says that if it were legally possible to bring a wrongful death suit against anyone, the U.S. Congress would make a good defendant, due to its long-term inaction.

An AIDS rate that rivals parts of Africa

Jose Ramirez, gay and HIV positive, educates other young Latinos about HIV and AIDS. Photo by Jonah Koch, courtesy of Cabin Films

The filmmakers admit that the AIDS epidemic is particularly bad in D.C., but many of the problems in the Capitol can be seen in communities all over the U.S. The particular governing system of the District, they suggest, contributes to some of the worst AIDS statistics in the U.S. At least three percent of D.C. residents—6.5 percent for black males—are living with HIV or AIDS. At the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1992, four percent of the people in San Francisco were HIV-positive. The CDC and UNAIDS designate one percent as a generalized and severe epidemic. Shannon Hader, former director of Washington, D.C’s HIV/AIDS administration said that the city’s HIV/AIDS rate was “on par with Uganda and some parts of Kenya.”

“D.C. as a city is basically dysfunctional,” Vargas says, adding that most congressmen see the District only as they drive by it from their suburban digs on the way to Capitol Hill.

The film is uplifting in some ways, showing how people with AIDS in D.C. are no longer willing to silently wait for help. J’Mia, the mother of three, became an affordable housing activist when she realized that the government wasn’t going to automatically step in and help her stay off the streets. Jose Ramirez, the man infected by his boyfriend, now devotes his life to promoting HIV awareness among Hispanic teens. A one-time addict, Ron Daniels, now saves lives by providing clean needles and helping drug users move into treatment programs. The health of an older black man, Joseph, made a dramatic turnaround after receiving support and care at Joseph’s House, a shelter for men and women with terminal diseases.

All of the accidental activists in The Other City refuse to be defeated by the disease or the hands they were dealt. Still, though they may represent AIDS in America now, they’re a long way from visible. Near the end of the film one activist makes an offhanded quip while standing in front of the Capitol Building, “I didn’t even know we were allowed down here.”

Larry Buhl interviewed actress Lupe Ontiveros for the September cover story.

October 2010