Restarting the Conversation on HIV/AIDS in the United States
An Interview With Susan Koch and Jose Antonio Vargas of The Other City
April 29, 2010
There's an HIV/AIDS epidemic raging in the U.S., though we can perhaps forgive people for having no clue that it exists. After all, you can't learn about it by picking up a newspaper or flipping on the television; it's not the kind of topic mainstream media is generally comfortable covering, perhaps because of the frank, complex discussion of human sexuality and social inequality it would entail.
HIV/AIDS activism and awareness peaked in the U.S. during the late 1980s and early 1990s. But then came combination HIV treatment, which essentially commuted the death sentences of hundreds of thousands of HIV-positive people. The rage and passion of those earlier years simmered down. Even though HIV rates are currently on the rise among many groups in the U.S., there's no panic among the general public, and little awareness that there's even a problem to be concerned about.
For HIV educators in the U.S., this has become the great conundrum of our time: how to make the virus relevant again. How to not only get the message out, but get it to sink in to the minds of millions who think it's a problem for Africa, for homeless people, for injection drug users -- for anyone but them.
Enter documentary filmmaker Susan Koch and journalist Jose Antonio Vargas. In 2009, they teamed up with co-producer Sheila C. Johnson and a talented crew to put together a stark, honest, up-front film about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Washington, D.C., where infection rates rival those in some developing nations. The resulting 90-minute documentary, The Other City, premiered on April 26 at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.
TheBody.com caught up with Koch and Vargas a few days before the film's premiere to talk about the documentary, the people they met while filming, and how the movie might help fix the lack of HIV/AIDS awareness that runs rampant, like an infection itself, among the U.S. public today.
Myles Helfand: Washington, D.C., is home to some of the most powerful people on the planet. This movie is about that city. So why is the title of the movie The Other City?
Susan Koch: We called it "The Other City" in the sense that in every city there's another city that many people, especially tourists, rarely see. I think that Washington, D.C., is especially that kind of city. I grew up in Washington. I've lived in the Washington area most of my life. And I was always struck by this idea of two Washingtons. It's a very divided city, and often the two cities don't have much interaction at all.
That's really how the film came about. I was looking at a way to tell the story of the other Washington. In the course of doing that, I was reading Jose Vargas' articles in the Washington Post and I realized that the epidemic really was so representative of what was going on in this other city.
Jose Antonio Vargas: I first got to D.C. in 2003 when I was a summer intern for the Washington Post. I told this story to Susan and she was cracking up. I had just been there for like two weeks from San Francisco, the Bay Area, and the editor said, "Go to the National Mall and cover this rally on Constitution Avenue." I get to the Mall and I thought, "Oh." I was looking for, like, the Gap. I was looking for stores. I didn't know what the National Mall was.
For a lot of people who don't live on the East Coast or don't know D.C., you just think it's like West Wing [the TV series], right. You think Georgetown, Capitol Hill, Dupont Circle, the White House, the museums, the monuments. You don't think the other D.C. I guess, because I kind of knew of all those monuments, I was more attracted to the other part of D.C. Within the first month of being an intern, riding the bus, and actually talking to people, it fascinated me.
When I got back home, I was describing D.C. to my family -- I'm Filipino -- and I remember saying to my grandmother that I thought I was back in Manila, because there were a lot of slums. Ward 7, Ward 8, across the river Anacostia -- Susan shot a lot in that area. It reminded me of being, seeing the slums in Manila. In terms of the nature of it and also the fact that there's a neighborhood in D.C. where there isn't even a grocery store.
Susan Koch: I just want to add one thing. People who are thinking of official Washington call it Washington. People who live there call it D.C. So even the name itself, there are two names. We didn't call it "The Other D.C.," because we wanted it to be broader than that in the sense, as I said, that in every city there's another city. So, yes, it happens to be taking place in Washington, D.C., but it's also taking place in cities all across America.
Myles Helfand: All right, so with that in mind, how would you summarize what this movie is all about?
Jose Antonio Vargas: Well, the movie is in many ways inspired by this series that I did back in 2006, basically getting a hold of the epidemic in the city, how to explain how the face of AIDS demographically has changed. You can see that in D.C. You can see by the types of populations that are being infected by this. A lot of people don't know that D.C.'s a predominately African-American town. There was a time in which D.C. was 70 percent African American. Now it's about 55 percent or so. It's a town that has a pretty sizeable gay population. There's a running joke when I was in D.C. that gay people run Capitol Hill. A lot of the staffers, certainly. Also, there's a high illiteracy rate, a high incarceration rate, a high poverty rate.
"We interviewed quite a few experts, and when we came to looking at the first cut, we realized they were great interviews, but really the people themselves told the story through their own lives. So this film just tries to show it like it is. We're not commenting on it. We're not being judgmental. We're just really letting you into people's lives so that you can witness what they're going through and who they are. They're very extraordinary ordinary people, I would say."
-- Susan Koch
Susan Koch: High drug rate.
Jose Antonio Vargas: Oh yes. The movie crosses, and I think in a very compelling way tells the story of, all these different demographic groups. A piece around perspective, that's how I like to explain it. But go ahead, Susan.
Susan Koch: The drug use obviously being significant because of the injection drug users who become infected through dirty needles. It's the story of people. We started out not knowing that it was just going to be about people. We interviewed quite a few experts, and when we came to looking at the first cut, we realized they were great interviews, but really the people themselves told the story through their own lives. So this film just tries to show it like it is. We're not commenting on it. We're not being judgmental. We're just really letting you into people's lives so that you can witness what they're going through and who they are. They're very extraordinary ordinary people, I would say.
Myles Helfand: Tell me about some of those people.
Jose Antonio Vargas: Actually, one of the first people that I met in D.C. was Ron Daniels. I met him when he was 46 years old. He was, at the time, the only guy running a needle exchange program off this RV [recreational vehicle]. Basically, he would drive around town all day collecting dirty needles and giving clean ones to drug addicts. In 2004, I spent three, four months with him just reporting the story of why is this guy doing this. It's a very controversial thing, at least for a lot of people. "Why should you hand clean needles to drug addicts?"
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This article was provided by TheBody. It is a part of the publication This Month in HIV.
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