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This Month in HIV: A Podcast of Critical News in HIV

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

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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. 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.

All rights reserved. © 2010 Cabin Films

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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Copyright © 2010 Body Health Resources Corporation. All rights reserved. Podcast disclaimer.

This podcast is a part of the series This Month in HIV. To subscribe to this series, click here.


This article was provided by TheBody. It is a part of the publication This Month in HIV.
See Also
J'Mia Edwards, "Public Face of AIDS in the District" Makes a Fresh Start, Film Debut
More on HIV in Films
13 Moments in Black Celebrity Activism
History's Biggest HIV-Positive Celebrities

Reader Comments:

Comment by: Flo (New Jersey ) Wed., Jul. 3, 2013 at 3:57 pm UTC
Is there any way I can obtain a video of The Other Ciy through some sort of donation so that I can play it at my support group meeting at the Ocean County Health Department ?
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Comment by: C (Berkeley, CA) Wed., Oct. 27, 2010 at 5:03 am UTC
I read the interview and would love to see the film. I feel like I'm one of the people lost in the crack of programs that must be out there.
Reply to this comment

Comment by: Cazz (Brandon/Tampa Florida) Tue., Sep. 28, 2010 at 10:20 am UTC
When will the film be shown in my area. I work in the field and have been for ten years now. Recently moved to Florida from upstate NY and worked in one of the poorest areas of my city which by the title of your film fits The Other City criteria. Now that I have moved to the south, it seems that we are last on the list to receive information all the time.The South region as a whole would fall under the criteria of "The Other Region" because nothing is being done about the epidemic or shopuld I say not enough is being done. When will the film be shown here or are we even on the list of cities to view the film. Florida is number three after New York and California we should have been the third stop to view the film. If not my area at least somehwere in the state of Florida. The South is the number one region for all HIV/AIDS infections in the US and again we are last to get the news. The areas that need the information are the last to receieve and as the film shows poverty stricken areas are the last to get the news. People in high places should see this movie but people in low places they want and NEED to see movies like this. It helps them know, they are not alone and someone is trying to do something. If the areas that are in the "Other City" do not know support is out there how will they maintain HOPE. Isn't that what we preach or encourage, Have Hope and you can make it, well when the support gets to you, but have Hope. How can we get our state on that, list.
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Comment by: Susan Fay (Indianapolis, IN) Mon., Jun. 7, 2010 at 3:46 pm UTC
I can't wait to see the film. I have worked in the HIV field for 20+ years. I, too, am frustrated that HIV numbers are not going down. Please bring your film to the Harm Reduction Conference in Austin TX this year.
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Comment by: Mark (NE) Wed., May. 12, 2010 at 1:23 am UTC
I have been doing studies at NIH for the last 13+ years. This interview supports totally a statement that was made by one of my doctors. He said that DC needs a Marshall Plan to cope with the HIV/AIDS crisis in Washington. I can remember back to early '98 one especially provocative awareness program done by the Whitman-Walker Clinic. I think it was almost too good because of the reaction it provoked. Two adult males in bed one on top of the other, face to face. A simple caption read "Let's talk about AIDS". A great deal of excrement hit the fan over those awareness posters. The posters were removed after 3 days. I dont think I have seen anything that effective, before or since, anyplace I have ever been. I would hope that that bit of awareness could be repeated today and to hell with peoples tender sensibilities!!!!
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Comment by: Michael (Canada) Sat., May. 1, 2010 at 1:24 pm UTC
It seem' that HIV/Aids as been put on the back burner we hardly ever hear about it anymore...why is that and all this sigtma that surrounds it.
I mean c'mon people its not by not talking about it that it will fade away.
Passing needles to addicts is to me just a part of the solution (reducing the risk of addicts getting infected) but for these human beings they should be more centers for them so they could undergo therapy with a follow-up attacking the problem of addiction at the source.

Is compassion over rated is that where we have come to I truly hope not.

Reply to this comment

Comment by: Lee Scott Townsend (Portland, ME) Fri., Apr. 30, 2010 at 12:31 am UTC
i literally stumbled across this article while mindlessly surfing the internet, and was so touched and moved; that i chose this as my "Pay-Forward" project from the Facebook event: Pay It Forward Day!

As a gay male who has been HIV+ for nearly 25 years, i wanted to do something cause a spark and ignite a resurgence in HIV and AIDS visibility, awareness, and education!

i wrote and published a note on Facebook, "Revitalizing the Awareness of HIV and AIDS in the United States", which is my attempt to begin a new journey in my life, leading me to a new path; in pursuit of my Destiny! I also, took the liberty of sharing the article from here on my profile and feeds pages!

Here's hoping that in some small way, my article will ignite a spark that will usher in a new era awareness, education, toleration, and discussion!

If nothing else, it is sure to stir a bit of controversy and discussion!
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Comment by: Tommy Chittenden (Indianapolis, IN) Thu., Apr. 29, 2010 at 4:26 pm UTC
Is it possible to purchase a copy of this documentary? If so, please let me know how to do so.

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