Restarting the Conversation on HIV/AIDS in the United States
An Interview With Susan Koch and Jose Antonio Vargas of The Other City
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.
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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.
-- 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?"
Myles Helfand: Wasn't D.C. the last city in the country to actually be allowed to use its own funds for needle exchange?
Jose Antonio Vargas: Yes, for many years, D.C. was the only city in the country that was barred by the federal government from using its own tax dollars to fund a needle exchange program. And again, that tells you: the "other" D.C. and the "other" city, because people don't know that people in Washington, D.C., don't actually have a vote in Congress. To this day they do not have a vote in Congress.
That needle exchange ban wasn't lifted until two years ago. That's one of the things that a couple of the experts in the film -- Colby King was a columnist for the Washington Post and Eleanor Holmes Norton, who's a delegate. She doesn't have necessarily a vote, but she's a delegate to Congress from D.C. And they say that Congress is reprehensible, is responsible for that legislation being put forth.
[Ron Daniels], I remember when I first met him. I spent three months with him and one day he collected 3,000 needles from five stops from about 120 people or so. I'll never forget this one woman who operated one of the metro cars, and she was still wearing her uniform when she was trying to exchange her needles. So I think Ron is a very compelling character, because we find out in the story, as we found out in the documentary, that he himself is HIV positive. And he got it through IDU, intravenous drug use. So he's one of the characters that we featured in the film.
Susan Koch: Another one is J'Mia. She's a young African-American woman, 28 years old. She has three children. She was unknowingly infected by her then-boyfriend who didn't tell her that he was infected. She's just a great, tough young woman who, while we were filming her, got word that she was going to have to vacate her subsidized housing, because the D.C. government had changed providers. So the apartment where she was living was no longer going to be on the list. But they didn't have another place for her to live. So it became a search for her, for over eight months, to try to find a place for her and her three children, and not knowing whether or not they would be out on the street. One of the most wonderful things about her is that you can see her become an activist as time goes by, because she realizes that unless she becomes a squeaky wheel and gets in everybody's face that she probably will end up on the streets. And she's determined to not let that happen.
-- Susan Koch
She tells it just like it is in terms of what it's like for women. I think some of the things that she says will shock people. I remember when we were doing the interview with her and she said, "If your partner's going to black your eye, you're not going to tell him to put on a condom." And I was like, "Whoa," because I realized that was the reality of her life and the reality of lives for many women. We don't think about that. We just think, "Oh, what, are they so dumb that they won't wear a condom?" I just think that she was just so forthright and so strong.
The reality of it is that African-American women, as she says, have so much on their plate. They're trying to put a roof over their family. They're trying to put food on the table. They're struggling to make ends meet. And often, their own health is the last thing on that list. So often, when they do find out if they are infected, they find out late. They also don't really have time to manage it as well as they need to because, as I said, they're struggling just to survive.
Jose Antonio Vargas: And there goes the reason why AIDS is the leading cause of death for African-American women, ages 25 to 34, in 2010, in the age in which Michelle Obama is in the White House. To me, as somebody in the film, a 28-year-old mother of three who's looking for housing and she's telling you -- this is, I think, as Susan was saying, something that would shock people.
-- Jose Antonio Vargas
We seem to think that all we need to do is provide condoms and that's supposed to help prevent this epidemic from spreading. Really, it's a bigger question than that. At the end of the day, a condom is just a conversation starter, right? How much power do I have that I'm going to tell you that you have to put this on? I don't think that we think of it that way. So I think that that's really an important point to bring on.
Myles Helfand: How old are J'Mia's kids?
Susan Koch: Ten months --
Jose Antonio Vargas: The youngest is 10 months.
Susan Koch: Yes, maybe a little older now, since it's been a few months since we stopped filming. So I guess one year, I would say; and seven and nine [for the others].
Myles Helfand: Do any of them have HIV also?
Susan Koch: No.
Jose Antonio Vargas: No. The other character that we meet in the film is Jose Ramirez, who's 27. He got infected when he was 17 years old. He actually found out when he was in high school. The high school nurse told him. And the high school nurse called the entire family to the school. The mom didn't know what was going on.
I think we're seeing this, at least the statistics are telling us -- the CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] came out with this report -- a lot of young minority kids, Latinos and African Americans, are getting infected by partners, or by boyfriends or lovers, who are much older than they are. Jose was dating somebody in his late 30s. And he didn't know -- the guy didn't tell him that he was HIV positive. At one point when Jose was asking him, "What drug are you taking?," the guy actually said, "It's for my diabetes." And the boyfriend passes away and Jose of course gets infected.
He's been living with it for 10 years, but what's really compelling about Jose is that he's really become a voice in D.C., particularly in the Hispanic community. He does outreach work to young Hispanics and making sure there's HIV awareness, talking to a lot of young illegal immigrants.
One of the most compelling things he talks about in the film is if you're an immigrant and you can't find a job, a lot of the kids turn to prostitution. And using a condom or not using a condom -- of course, guys would pay more if you don't use a condom than if you do.
Susan Koch: The thing that really struck me about Jose was that he was rejected by his father for being gay, thrown out of the house. So when he took up with this older man, he said -- it's ironic -- he said what he felt was safe. And the irony of it was this was the man who infected him, but he took care of him. He provided for him. He paid for him, where he had been rejected by his own father.
Jose Antonio Vargas: And again, that strikes into the point of, yes, it is about getting infected with HIV/AIDS, but this is a bigger issue. He says this in the film, he says that "A lot of the issues that I have is probably because I've always been trying to fill the void that my father [left]." The dad has had how many children, Susan?
Susan Koch: Eleven, with different women.
Jose Antonio Vargas: Eleven, with different women. To me, especially talking about the changing face of AIDS and HIV, I think Jose is definitely, definitely a part of that changing demographic.
Susan Koch: I'll just tell you about one more character because he's a stark reminder that, while we've come a ways in treating the disease, we haven't come as far as we would hope. And that's Jimmy, who is a young white male, age 35. We're there with him as he's admitted to a place called Joseph's House, which is a final resting place, a hospice for people who have AIDS.
Myles Helfand: Joseph's House has been around for a long time.
Susan Koch: Yes, Joseph's House has been around for a long time, and it's always full. There's always a waiting list. And it's now mainly African American. The population used to be primarily gay and white and homeless, but it's changing with the face of the disease. He was one of the few white people who was there over the course of the year we spent there. He had a very loving family who was always [supporting him], but the meds just stopped working. I think he was infected when he was a teen.
Jose Antonio Vargas: He was 18.
Susan Koch: He's just been on so many regimens and they just stopped working. And he had come there. You see how amazing Joseph's House is, how caring and how committed. This one young woman who works there says, "The thought that all these people -- imagine having no place to die." And you just can't help but be overwhelmed by the love and compassion in this house. You can't help but think, "Does it take people dying for us to treat people like this?"
Jose Antonio Vargas: What I think is important about Joseph's House is how much liveliness there is in a place where people die. I remember when I first got there, first experienced what happens when somebody passes away. They get in a circle and they sing "Lean on Me." At first I was like, "Oh my God. What is this?" It is just overwhelming, the kind of compassion that people have for each other. In many ways, that's kind of the point we're trying to bring across with the film, with this idea that we must become each other's witnesses, that we all have a responsibility to each other. I think that's something that we miss with this epidemic, because there's so much judgment placed on it.
Susan Koch: And that's where the "other" comes in, too, because we tend to think of it as other people that have [HIV/AIDS]. So that's also the reason for calling it The Other City, that maybe if we get to know people, we humanize them and we see they're just like us, that we won't have the sense that it's other people that get it. The sense still exists so strongly that you had to do something, that you had to be a bad person or you wouldn't be infected.
Myles Helfand: In the situations where you're meeting people and seeing people, the people that you've just described, how do you balance that with the desire to put together a film that tries to be objective and just tells the story the way it is? How do you avoid getting preachy? How do you avoid getting caught up in the desire to just fix things?
Susan Koch: Well, you know, it was interesting. Jose and I, last year we taught at Georgetown University, and we used the making of the film as part of the class. We just, a few weeks ago, screened it for the students. One of them asked a question about J'Mia, and said, "How could you -- didn't you want to just do something to get her housing right away?" I honestly think the answer is: She got housing. I mean, I can't say definitively, but I think that the fact that we were shining a light on her ultimately helped her situation, and she knows that.
But I think that you realize that you're trying to tell a story, and you need to show it like it is. You try so hard to be just that fly on the wall. It doesn't mean you don't go home and you're [not] emotionally distraught because of what you've witnessed. But it's so important for people to be able to see and hear and witness what we do. So I think that you just have to try as best you can to hope that you're treating everybody honestly, respectfully and you're bringing their stories to life. That's the first step in what we're trying to do.
Myles Helfand: Is that one of the reasons that you referred to a couple of people that you were just talking about earlier as "characters"? Is it to try and help you keep that sense of separation?
Jose Antonio Vargas: I actually had to get used to that in my head. Susan and I actually had a couple of conversations about this because, at one point, very naively -- this is my first documentary. Susan has been doing this for a while. She's the one that plucked me out and said, "Let's go work on this together and let's collaborate." I thought we could just fit in like nine or 10 people and be like a Robert Altman film. That was my thought. And she's like, "No, we really have to find people. We need to follow their story. There needs to be an arc. We need to know where they're going." And I think, at least for me, at the end of the day, Jose represents not just Jose, but other people in that situation.
Jimmy, the 35-year-old white guy who dies. Ron Daniels, the guy with the needle exchange truck. J'Mia, the mother of three who's 28 years old. They all represent not just themselves, but other people, other women, other people who are living, out there, the kind of life that they're leading.
Susan Koch: That's exactly how I would put it, too. It's interesting you said that, Myles, because ... when you're making a film, it is a film. You want to reach a wide audience, and you don't want to just preach to the converted. I hope that at Tribeca we're going to get people who are coming because they just want to see a film and their eyes may be opened to something that they didn't know. There were so many people that we would have loved to include [in the film], and in the end we're saying, "OK, we have a story to tell and how are we going to best tell it? Who's going to be most representative of what we're trying to communicate?"
Myles Helfand: Actually, let's just back up just a moment. I think we should probably get our readers a little bit in tune to who the two of you are and what your backgrounds are. Let's start with you, Susan. This is not your first social justice-oriented documentary, right?
Susan Koch: Yes. That's what I like to do. I started out as a broadcaster in television and in news, always working on non-fiction and news programming. But I gradually evolved to working on longer, what you'd call feature documentaries. This is my fifth one that will hit the festival circuit and then go on to broadcast, DVD, screenings and maybe even theaters. It's hard to know. We're just getting started on this one.
I guess I'm just intuitive about what I choose to do. It's what interests me and what I think needs to be told and how I can tell it. And I gravitate towards people. I like people stories.
Myles Helfand: What was the last film that you did before this one?
Susan Koch: It was called Kicking It. It was about homeless soccer players that competed at an international street soccer tournament called "The Homeless World Cup." So it was a way of looking at homelessness, but through this competition that takes place every year in a different country. I followed characters from six countries around the world, and you were able to see the different reasons for homelessness, but also their common humanity.
Plus, it sounds crazy at first, but when you come to think about it, a lot of the best players, soccer or football players, come from the street. So it ended up on ESPN [a multimedia sports entertainment company], which I just loved, because this was a way of getting a whole new audience to be thinking about homelessness.
Myles Helfand: Jose, you're at the Huffington Post now, but you were a writer before then for the Washington Post for quite a while. Is it true that you were actually initially hired to work at the Washington Post as a tech writer and video game reporter?
Jose Antonio Vargas: Yes, I got lucky. I'd been a journalist, basically a paid journalist, since I was 17. I got started pretty early. And then all through college, I worked at the San Francisco Chronicle. Because of that, I ended up getting hired at the Washington Post right after college. When they offered me a job, they said they wanted somebody to cover the video game culture. I knew nothing about video games, so I thought it was a joke. But then again, like, "All right, let's go run with this."
But then the whole time that I started writing about video games, I started writing about AIDS. Actually, the interesting joke in the newsroom was, "How can this guy be writing about both the latest Halo game and be writing about black women and HIV at the same time?" But it was a challenge to me. And I really have to give credit to the editors at the Washington Post that let me do that.
It's so easy for reporters to be pegged. It's very easy for young writers particularly to get pegged. I remember, particularly, first getting started reporting on AIDS, one of the editors who I really liked and respected said to me, "You don't really want to be known as the AIDS reporter now, do you?" [Laughs.] I said, "Why not?" "That's not a way to get promoted in this place, Jose." I proved him wrong, because right after the AIDS series, I ended up covering the presidential campaign for two years.
Like Susan, I gravitate towards people. That's kind of just how I tell stories. The luck of the draw here is that when I met Susan, she and I are so alike in the way we look at journalism, in the way we look at the responsibility of a journalist, that we didn't even have -- I mean, I would imagine if that wasn't the case, we could have spent six months just trying to feel each other out, like, "What's the story here?" We were so on board from the very beginning that it made the process much easier.
-- Jose Antonio Vargas
Myles Helfand: So you knew a good deal about HIV, particularly in Washington, D.C., before the two of you started working together on this film.
Jose Antonio Vargas: Yeah. I had written an entire year-long series on it in 2006. Susan contacted me, basically, during the height of the [U.S. presidential election] primary season, in 2008.
Myles Helfand: This is actually a question for both of you, but we could start with you, Jose. During the course of filming this, what did you learn that you hadn't known before?
Jose Antonio Vargas: For me, when I first got there -- here was the other D.C., right? And it just so happened that this other D.C. had all of these other [issues]: lack of access to health care, high incarceration rate, poverty, drug addiction, homophobia. AIDS was a way to tell that story. So when I did that, I'm like, "How did this city get to be this way?" That's how I ended up doing the series: I was literally mapping out how the epidemic got to where it got, and discovering that the city had lost track of the epidemic. At one point, [officials] misplaced boxes of files with [HIV-positive] people's names in it that they hadn't counted yet into the final tally.
The film, as you know, starts when the city finally says, "Oh, we do know how many people have HIV: 3 percent." At least 3 percent of the whole population has HIV. To put that into context, UNAIDS and the CDC say 1 percent constitutes a general epidemic. D.C. is at 3 percent.
In terms of what I didn't know, I mean, the numbers are there, right? The numbers, now people know, at least in Washington, D.C. But I think numbers hide as much as they reveal. The goal for us is to put faces and real people [to the numbers] and tell their stories that way. I think, at some point, Susan and I were both overwhelmed by just the stories of people that we found.
-- Susan Koch
Susan Koch: Oh, boy, Myles. I think, what did I know? I knew nothing. I think of myself as being informed. I read the paper, and I watch the news, and I'm up on things, and I'm traveling the world. I've done a lot on AIDS in Africa. And, wow: I would call myself ignorant, or uninformed -- maybe that's the better word. I just was amazed at so many things -- even little things were very new to me, and that I hadn't thought about; and then, of course, when you learn about them, make perfect sense. Like J'Mia saying, "Well, if I don't have housing, how am I going to refrigerate my medicine?" That's very basic.
Jose Antonio Vargas: That's a good question.
Susan Koch: Yeah. But I never thought about that, and we don't think about those things. I tend to fall in love with all of my, I won't say "characters" this time, but the people featured in the film. And as Jose has talked about, with Ron: You go out there, and at first, you're in this little cramped van that the door won't even close -- because otherwise they can't get their needles -- and it's freezing and it's snowing. It's either 20 degrees and snowing, or it's 90 degrees and there's no air conditioning. And there's all these people who use drugs coming up. At first, you're like, whoa. You feel a little bit uncomfortable. Then after a while all you're thinking about is what an amazing man this is, and how much you can learn from him.
For me, I learned so much about people. I learned so much about the city that I never knew, even having grown up here.
When I would talk to people about this, even as I was filming, and they would ask me what I was working on, there were really two reactions: "Why would you want to do a film on that? That's so depressing." And the other was, "Oh, I had no idea we had a problem." So, I don't think this film is depressing.
Jose Antonio Vargas: When Susan and I first started, we were like, "OK. We don't want a gloomy film." The subject matter itself is heavy enough that I think you want [to film] people who have some sort of spirit in them, you know? And I think actually that's what we ended up finding. I think Jose, for example, is somebody that especially a lot of younger people are going to relate to.
Myles Helfand: Just to back up for a moment. Susan, you're describing yourself as the everyperson in the U.S., who considers herself to be well informed, and is clearly a very bright, very intelligent person, who has spent her career as a filmmaker concerned about issues of social justice, fairness, and people getting access to what they need in order to have the freedom to make something of their lives. And yet, you found that there's this entire world in Washington, D.C., that you knew nothing about.
Within the HIV community, for years now, the discussion has been that there are so many -- and I really apologize, because I don't mean at all to pigeonhole you here -- but that there are so many "people like you" out there, that might be really smart, that might really know their stuff, that might be on top of all the news that's happening, and still have no clue just how bad HIV is in the United States.
Susan Koch: Yeah, and I don't know why that is. I think it's because it was really in our face in the '80s, and even in the beginning of the '90s. I remember when we first started hearing about it. Then, I think everybody knew to be careful. [Then] it just kind of disappeared. I thought the numbers had gone down. I didn't realize. I really didn't know. You know, it's a good question: Why didn't I know more?
I don't think people talk about it. I think there's so much stigma. I think it's a combination of factors. I think there is stigma and shame, and so people don't want to talk about it. And I think there's a discomfort whenever you're going to talk about sex and drugs. People are uncomfortable.
And then I think the conversation shifted to AIDS in the rest of the world, not here in this country. Somehow, in everybody's mind, it had become a global issue that the United States had successfully grappled with and won, and now we had moved on to other places.
Obviously, the numbers are huge -- much greater -- in other parts of the world. But I think that perhaps we focused on the rest of the world and, in the process, neglected our own backyard.
Myles Helfand: Jose, how much is the media to blame for that?
Jose Antonio Vargas: A lot, I think. You know, I was kind of stunned, to be honest with you. As I said, I worked at the San Francisco Chronicle, where Randy Schultz wrote And the Band Played On. I was definitely aware of that book. I had read the book when I was in college.
Then I get to D.C., the so-called most powerful -- it really kind of annoyed me, frankly, when I first got there, and there's all these really super-ambitious, young people who want to change the world. I call them, like, Tracy Flick from Election, right? And somehow it annoyed me that, OK, if they wanted to change the world, why couldn't they see what the city is really about? Why couldn't they see that the city was so segregated, and, as Susan said, so divided? I couldn't quite make sense of that.
And then, you get to the Washington Post. I had, of course, researched: How many articles did the Washington Post do on this issue? They did articles on it here and there. But there was never a this-is-happening-right-here-right-now-let's-get-this-on-the-front-page kind of moment. That's why I ended up writing, literally, a memo to the top editors, saying that I want to trace this epidemic. Much to their credit, they let me do it. And I had just been at the Post, at the time, for a year and a half.
-- Jose Antonio Vargas
Look at the way, for example, politics is covered in this country. As a political reporter, this is my experience. So rarely do people get out of the talking points, and get out of the tit-for-tat and the cable wars, to really go into people's lives and talk about how policy is affecting people, everyday people.
For me, having read AIDS coverage when I was younger, and knowing Larry Kramer, and knowing And the Band Played On, it was almost as if I wanted to take AIDS out of the ghetto. I wanted to get it out of the gay ghetto, and get it out of the black ghetto, and address bigger questions -- about self-esteem, about power, about powerlessness, about identity. Because I think, you know, when you listen to Jose, you listen to J'Mia, you listen -- one of the characters that we haven't even talked about in the film, the men in the film, is a group of HIV-positive ex-convicts, mostly in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, all African-American. And to hear them, just the rhythm of their lives and the issues that they talk about -- it's not just AIDS; it's more than that. For me, that was the goal.
Myles Helfand: One of the few major reporting forays into HIV that I have seen done recently in the U.S., actually, was something that the Washington Post did not long after you left.
Jose Antonio Vargas: Yes.
Myles Helfand: It's the "Wasting Away" series. But that was a focus more on a scandal than on anything else. It was talking about how the city's HIV/AIDS Administration essentially squandered millions of dollars.
Jose Antonio Vargas: I actually was in conversation with Debbie Cenziper, who wrote that piece, who is a great reporter. She won a Pulitzer when she was at the Miami Herald. What she basically did; she said she wanted to work on it. We got together, because she had read my series back on '06; hers was basically '08 or '09. She had focused on a specific statistic that I had in the first article that opened my series, which was: Between 1998 and 2004, the city had spent nearly half a billion dollars in local and federal funds to treat, prevent and care for the HIV epidemic in the district.
What happened to all that money? To put this into context, D.C. was one of the first cities in the country to have an AIDS office, back in 1986. But the AIDS office, at the time, had had 12 directors in 20 years. There was a lot of turnover. So there really was a failure of the local government to tackle the disease.
-- Susan Koch
That was basically the gist of what she did. At the very beginning, she said to me that she didn't really want to do what I had done, which was really focus more on individual people's demographic stories. She wanted to basically follow the money, which is exactly what she did. And she did a very good job doing that.
Susan Koch: Our film starts out with a little bit about that, about the failure of the city, just to set the stage for what's going on. But it then goes into the people.
We had a lot of that, and we had a lot of information. But, again, we chose to focus on the people. That was our film. You could do another film just on the scandal. I mean, oh, it was so corrupt. The AIDS office became the dumping ground for patronage jobs; people weren't even showing up and they were getting paychecks. You just can't even fathom that, here you have this critical issue and people are dying, and then money is just being filtered off to friends. It was really -- it was pretty -- it's stunning. There are still problems with this, although they are trying to work on it.
That was a very useful series, but it's different from what we tried to do, which was humanize this story.
Jose Antonio Vargas: And to back up this point -- this was something, for example: I maybe had spent four months trying to create a timeline for the AIDS director that replaced the other AIDS director that replaced the other AIDS director. But to me, what's important to notice here is the government can only do so much. The federal government and the local government can only do so much. Individually, we all have a responsibility on this issue. So I think that's something that we address in the movie.
Somebody like Ron Daniels and Jose: They talk eloquently about how they got to where they got. And I don't think the "everyday, ordinary person" would relate as much if people don't own up to that -- that they had done something that maybe they should not have been doing.
Myles Helfand: You guys were filming for the better part of a year. By the time you were wrapping, did you feel more hopeful or less hopeful about the direction things were going in D.C.?
Susan Koch: Oh, boy. That's a tough one.
Jose Antonio Vargas: From my reporting point of view, I think a little more hopeful. Because, from a government perspective, D.C. actually has a functioning surveillance unit now. The surveillance unit is -- in my opinion, at least; in my reporting on this for seven years -- that's really the most critical part of an AIDS office. You need to know what the trends are.
At one point, D.C. had the fastest rate of AIDS cases. Because by the time people tested, they already had AIDS, not HIV. They had already progressed to AIDS. For a while, D.C. didn't even know what the numbers were.
Well, now the government knows what the numbers are. So now the question becomes, OK, now that you know, now you have a map of where the epidemic is and where it's going to go. What are you going to do to not just prevent it, but to care for the people who already have it? To me, that's a step in the right direction.
Even now that I'm in New York -- I don't live in D.C. anymore -- I still keep in contact with people like Ron, or Patricia Nalls, who's the head of the Women's Collective, which is mostly about black women in D.C. And there's a feeling that the people right now in the AIDS office just haven't done the kind of outreach that they should be doing, actually talking to people on the ground.
Susan Koch: I think that I feel hopeful, in the sense that there are a lot of incredible organizations and individuals that are on the grassroots level that are working. But it's discouraging because I think that they are not working together, and they are also all vying for that same small slice of pie. The funding situation is extremely tough.
I don't know. I guess if you try to look at the big picture, you can get overwhelmed. But when you stop and see what some of these groups and individuals are doing, then you think, OK, maybe we can begin to make a dent.
Jose Antonio Vargas: I remember, one of the first things I did when Susan and I had agreed to work on the film together was taking her to meet all my sources. The Latin group, the black gay group, the white gay group, the women, the transgender group, and the teens -- the guy that handles Metro Teen AIDS, which is all about youth outreach. They all sat there at a table. And one of them says, "Oh, this is one of the first times that we actually have been at the same table."
And I remember looking at Susan and going, "Oh, wow." That's the problem. D.C. is not that big. And I bet you that that exact same scenario is probably happening in a lot of urban areas: At the end of the day, these groups just don't really talk to each other. They become islands unto themselves.
I've been at a seminar for -- I'm not going to name any names -- but I went to an AIDS conference. And I was stunned. I was just stunned at the lack of representation, the lack of representation of other people in the discussion. I couldn't believe that they were talking about AIDS in America, circa 2009, and these are the people who are representing the groups. I think that's something that really needs to be addressed, as well.
Myles Helfand: There's going to be, hopefully, a very broad range of people that end up watching this film. So I suppose there's any number of different messages that people could take away, depending on who they are and what they choose to focus on. But is there a particular thing that you're hoping will come out of this film? Who are you most hoping to reach? And do you see this film as providing a way forward?
Jose Antonio Vargas: I'll let Susan answer that question.
Susan Koch: I hope that people will get a lot of different things from it. I mean, I think that's always the challenge when you do a film, because you want to reach those who are in the midst of it -- like, a lot of folks [who visit TheBody.com] will know this issue very well, and you hope that they still can learn something and identify with it. And you also hope that people who know nothing will learn something and be interested in it.
What we most want to do is, we want to restart this conversation. We want people to start, from all different walks of life -- whether you're intimately involved in this, or whether you know nothing -- to become engaged and say, you know, this is a collective issue. This is about all of us. And we want to start; we need to deal with this.
-- Susan Koch
Films can't solve problems. If they could, you know, whoa; we'd be funded a lot more readily. But what we can do is, we can raise awareness, and we can start the conversation. I think that if we can do that, we will have done what we set out to do.
Jose Antonio Vargas: I think the biggest lesson to take away, too, is, you have to meet people where they're at. That was something I had to really learn because I didn't -- there was one point, for example, when I was spending all that time with the support group for HIV-positive ex-cons, but I couldn't quite understand. My reality was so different from theirs. Before I even started reporting on it, there was so much judgment I had in my head about who these men were, and the kind of lives they must have led, and how they got to where they got.
And again, this idea of, as Susan had said, having a common humanity. Susan had mentioned that we taught a class at Georgetown. She would kindly give me a ride home after class. At one point, when we were both kind of overwhelmed, she said to me, "How do we end this? What is the solution?" And of course, there is no solution. It's not like Susan and I are creating some sort of a vaccine here. That's not what we've done. All we've done is, as Susan had said, hopefully restart the conversation.
At the end of the day, the stories, I think, speak very clearly and very loudly and very eloquently for themselves. And the camera, thankfully; there are so many scenes in the film that I think a lot of people probably hadn't seen before. This is a documentary; it's not a fiction film. And I think that's something to take away, as well.
Myles Helfand: You know, it's interesting. You talk about restarting the conversation, and this film is being featured at Tribeca, one year after another HIV-related film was featured at Tribeca, the last one being House of Numbers, which actually called into question whether HIV even causes AIDS.
It's interesting to see the juxtaposition. That was the HIV-related film of Tribeca last year. And this year, it's The Other City.
Jose Antonio Vargas: That's great.
Susan Koch: Yeah. I haven't seen that film, but I've heard about it. And I will guarantee you one thing: this film does not call into question that [HIV causes AIDS].
Jose Antonio Vargas: We're not even on the same planet when it comes to that discussion. We're not starting at that point.
Myles Helfand: So this film is being screened a couple times, at least, during the Tribeca Film Festival.
Jose Antonio Vargas: There are four times, and there's a press screening.
Susan Koch: This is our world premiere, at the Tribeca Film Festival. And then, in late June, we're already slated to be at another film festival. We will have our D.C. premiere, which is very exciting for us, with the SilverDocs Film Festival. And then we'll be going hopefully around the country with this. We have been invited to the World AIDS Conference. So I hope there are a lot of opportunities for people to see the film. But the first step is, obviously, New York City, Tribeca Film Festival. You can find out about tickets if you go to --
Jose Antonio Vargas: Theothercity.com.
Myles Helfand: Honestly, I feel like I could talk with you guys about this for another ever. I've already taken you more than twice as long as I had promised to, and I don't want to take any more of your time. So we should wrap up. But I cannot possibly thank the both of you enough. You're both just so honest and open and empathetic, and it really shines through. If any amount of that comes through in the film, it's going to be a really powerful, really important movie to see.
Susan Koch: Well, thank you.
Jose Antonio Vargas: Thank you so much.
Susan Koch: It's nice to talk to you. We're big fans of your work. I just think if we could make a small little dent in what you all do, then that would be great. So thank you.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.