While the Red Campaign to fight AIDS in Africa may be all the rage with celebrities, Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Susan Koch has chosen to train her lens on the unglamorous American city that has the highest HIV/AIDS rate in this country, one higher than that of many African nations. Her documentary The Other City is a fascinating and damning glimpse inside a parallel universe that exists right in the heart of our nation’s capital, and a battle cry from the urban poor of Washington, D.C.
In addition to in-depth interviews with those on the ground, including health administrators and a beat reporter covering the swept-under-the-rug epidemic, The Other City follows several D.C. denizens whose day-to-day lives are directly affected by the policies emanating from Capitol Hill. There’s J’Mia, a young, black, HIV-positive mom who must remember to take her medication even as she navigates the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the under-funded housing program that is evicting her and her kids. There are the touchingly humble caregivers, and the heartbreaking residents and their families—black and white, straight and gay—who fill up Joseph’s House, the only place in town where the homeless in the last stages of AIDS can die in peace—and which loses a crucial grant, prompting one staff member to immediately go out and play the lottery. There are the formerly incarcerated men with AIDS who fight to better their lives through the Courage to Change group, and a gay Latino activist who decries that government outreach is not getting to the people in the ‘hood where it matters—and who takes it upon himself to pass out condoms in the local hookup park at night. With similar tactics, Ron, an HIV-positive ex-junkie, spends his days off visiting the local shooting galleries and preaching the necessity of needle exchange programs.
Ultimately, The Other City is both uplifting in its portrait of grassroots activism at its finest, and utterly infuriating in its revelation that what little tax dollars are being spent on education and prevention are not remotely reaching those truly in need. After all, “Silence Equals Death” sloganeering is easier than actually tackling the messy reality of sex and drugs. By the time J’Mia, Ron, the ex-cons of Courage to Change, and the staff of Joseph’s House all get the chance to make their voices heard to the powers that be, only one thing is clear: Director Koch has crafted a thorough, non-condescending doc intended to do what a cowardly Congress can’t—make a difference.