Elevate Difference

The Other City

Directed by Susan Koch

Most cities are comprised of at least two distinct sub-cities, so to speak. It’s particularly appalling that Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital and symbolic of the triumph of democracy, has a higher HIV/AIDS rate than Port au Prince, Haiti or Dakar, Senegal. A one percent infection rate of a city’s population is considered an epidemic; D.C.'s can be estimated between three and five percent. While one part of the District’s population goes about the business of running the country, another goes about the business of trying to stay alive.

More than one million people in the United States are currently infected with HIV/AIDS; of those infected, one in five do not know they are infected. It is the leading cause of death for black women ages twenty-five to thirty-four. The epidemic rages on, though goes largely unnoticed outside of certain communities. The visible reminders, like public funerals and rallies that were popular in New York City in the 1980s, have largely faded from the public eye and popular discourse.

The epidemic has shifted, however. Once stereotypically attributed to men who sleep with men and drug users, the problem has largely settled over poor communities. In The Other City, the epidemic’s many D.C.-area victims and survivors are shown in a variety of situations and circumstances. Jose’s ex-boyfriend lied about being infected. Donald, who had been living in his parents’ basement, moved into the Joseph’s House hospice and thrived. Still, after more than thirty-five of his friends died, he moved out, saying, “It’s worse than war.”

J’Mia, who is twenty-eight with three kids, worries that because of the myriad legal documents needed to apply for subsidized housing—many of which she struggles to find, spending entire days making phone calls—she’ll end up on the street. If she ends up homeless, she insists that she won’t take her pills and will sleep with whoever will put a roof over her family’s heads. In the housing counseling office, she’s asked demeaning questions like “How many sex partners have you had?” Despite all of this, she speaks with authority about how women are caregivers and take care of others before themselves. Her pride and perseverance is encouraging, a hopeful ray in a dark situation.

While the stories The Other City highlights are critical, the film itself is incredibly frustrating. It shifts between narratives and profiles without helpful transitions, making it seem more like a series of vignettes about living with HIV/AIDS than an actual narrative about the epidemic in the District. Formerly incarcerated men in a support group are shown in a scene next to a hospice where AIDS patients come to die. While the theme technically holds together, the images and stories feel disjointed when presented in such a way. Shot on video, the visuals feel crude and unpolished.

As someone with a family member who has been living with HIV/AIDS since the 1980s, you would think I would be particularly drawn to this film. I was not. I appreciate what the filmmakers—many of them highly acclaimed and well respected in their field—attempted to do in telling the ignored stories of the often faceless victims of the AIDS epidemic, the problems facing needle exchange programs, and the history of mismanagement in combating the domestic epidemic. But whether the filmmakers’ efforts were hindered by class privilege or a lack of true connection to their subjects is unknown. I’m incredibly pleased that films like this one are made, but I wish they were as captivating as the subjects they feature.

Written by: Brittany Shoot, September 22nd 2010

thanks for the review, Brittany. i also was disappointed in the film, in part because (like a lot of well-meaning media) the only hint of solution or response to the epidemic offered here is the chance for PLWA to "tell their stories." the group of former inmates that you mention, for instance, present a play based on their own words. J'Mia testifies to government officials about her experiences. the movie itself is comprised of interviews and clips, apparently giving the subjects control over their own narrative. fine. but the subtle suggestion is that all we need to do is talk about the problem(s), and let others talk as well. that's ok as a first step, but just because government officials listen does not mean they will act, and just because one group of men present a play does not mean the structural racism that puts a third of African American men in prison has changed. as a resident, i can tell you there are movements in DC to do a heckuva lot more. to demand stable housing, especially for PLWA, for instance, and to keep and expand needle exchange. in the film, we never see people organizing in groups to address the health system as a whole. instead i fear it allows us to keep thinking of AIDS as an individual battle every infected person must struggle through on his/her own. particularly in the structure of the men's group story, the audience is allowed to believe that these are (reformed) bad people, who ended up with the disease because of bad behavior, who simply need to look inside and fix themselves, albeit in the context of the support group. a doctor friend who saw it with me pointed out that the story of the young man who dies in the Joseph House hospice--the one person who dies in the film--is actually an anomaly: people don't usually die of AIDS because the drugs and treatment stop working, but because circumstances of their life (like losing a job, health insurance, and/or housing) prevents them from getting treatment at all. as it appears in the film, however, AIDS is still at heart a scientific problem: we just need more research to find a vaccine/cure/wonder drug. sure, maybe research will turn up the miracle cure one day. but, as Larry Bryant from Housing Works said at the screening i attended, unless we address the economic, social, and political structures in place that allow AIDS to flourish in DC, it doesn't matter if we cure AIDS. we're only waiting for the next epidemic to begin.

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