Sunday, December 12, 2010

THE OTHER CITY: An AIDS Epidemic in D.C.

The Other City is an American documentary directed by Susan Koch and was released in 2010. The documentary crew follows individuals in Washington D.C. who suffer from HIV or AIDS, revealing that at least 3% (perhaps up to 5%) of the Washington D.C. population is infected with HIV or AIDS. The title comes from the notion that tourists see the pristine White House, the cherry blossoms, and the proud Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, but rarely see the “other” city, the one riddled with poverty and disease. The heart-wrenching stories of a young infected mother battling the system just trying to find a place to live with her children, the young white man who dies in an AIDS home surrounded by family, and a man who is trying to help, by providing clean needles in exchange for dirty ones. All of these stories show strife, but they also show how the system that is in place that is suppose to help these individuals is actually doing anything but. The film advocates awareness by opening the viewers’ eyes to a problem that no one seems to be discussing in our nation’s capital, the symbol for the United States of America.

Susan Koch and her documentary filmmaking crew express concern for the nation’s capital. This film is no-doubt an advocacy film (rather than a complete cinema verite without an agenda) in that it is strongly skewed to make a point. The point is that no one is talking about this issue. Like the “other” part of the city, the issue gets swept aside and ignored. And now that the problem has reached epidemic levels, action is needed. The film’s message is that the issues that are swept under the rug come back and are worse because we have ignored them in their infancies. The film criticizes the fact that since Washington D.C. is separate from the states so the delineation of a state governance and federal governance is murky compared to other regions, thus bureaucratic red tape is even more pronounced. It also implies that the government’s lack of action has brought this problem to its full height. Regardless of whether or not the audience agrees with these specific concerns, no one can deny (based on the facts presented in the film) that HIV and AIDS is an issue in Washington D.C. And the theme of The Other City is a clear vehicle for their message of hidden issues within a society.
The film uses personal stories to effectively relate a larger issue to the viewers. And a strategy it uses is diversity amongst the subjects. In The Other City, J’Mia, a single mother of three, is suffering with AIDS, but that is nothing to her struggle, searching for housing. The crew follows J’Mia and discovers that some of the subsidized housing (designed for situations like J’Mia’s) will be a two-year wait, or else are already filled. Again, this shows the magnitude of the issue. And then there is Jose, a young Hispanic man who is HIV positive. He has turned his struggles into advocacy by reaching out to Hispanic-dominated schools to teach teens about HIV and safe sex. But even different still is the staff of an AIDS hospice, Joseph’s House, a place where people can come, free of charge, if they, according to the workers, “don’t have a place to die.” The film follows the funding issues this organization goes through as their grants may not be renewed, another example of how the system is failing to help. And then there’s Ron, a former addict and current AIDS victim, who runs a program where for each dirty needle a person gives anonymously, new needles are given to him. This controversial program (some feel it is propagating drug use, when really it is just trying to advocate health) was outlawed in Washington D.C. for some time, but has now been instated (though without much funding – Ron works out of a van). These diverse subjects cover a wealth of demographics, showing the magnitude of the problem.

The film makes great use out of one particular filmic device: intertitles. These titles and text placed below the film’s action on the screen and interspersed throughout the film serve multiple purposes. Practically, they delineate characters to make the plot lines easier to follow, but they also contribute to the advocacy goal of the film. For instance, intertitles are used to present facts about the social issue. In The Other City, the intertitles drop such cold-hard facts like 3-5% are infected with HIV or AIDS or that Obama’s administration was the first to create an AIDS strategy for the United States (while we’ve required an AIDS strategy for the countries we give aid to for years). When, where and how these intertitles appear is based on the auteur of the film, but can change how the scene is perceived. The effect garners sympathy for the subjects. These intertitles in the film contribute to an overall pessimistic note, asking for change and reform for their respective causes.

The film uses another convention: speaking to both those directly affected by these issues, and representatives of those who may have propagated them. In The Other City, the film shows Representative Todd Tiahrt (a Republican from Kansas) claiming he didn’t make people use dirty needles or have sex with infected people and thus it is not his fault that this epidemic has spread. Conversely, there’s Eleanor Holmes Norton, Congresswoman from Washington D.C. who says in the film, “failure to have needle exchange allowed the disease to be silently passed through the population, for that the Congress of the United States is chiefly responsible.” A trait of advocacy films is showing where the problem began, so showing the government’s role in this issue signals to the viewer that more should have been done. Again, this use of a government official helps to advocate change as they lend some validity to the filmmakers’ statements.Documentaries are often difficult to edit and have difficulties finding an audience. For The Other City the filmmakers chose to interweave the stories of the subjects, intermixed with hard facts. This editing style suits the advocacy film genre well as the viewer sees the larger idea (with the facts) but also sees the faces involved (with the subjects’ stories). In a Q&A with the director, Koch explained that there were more stories filmed, that just couldn’t make the cut. She reiterated that finding the story within the footage and working to create a cohesive film with enough intrigue and climax is key for documentaries. And as far as finding an audience, the film has done well at film festivals. The Other City premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and is now receiving limited theatrical openings in select cities (Washington D.C., New York, and Los Angeles). The film’s still racy topic of HIV and AIDS undoubtedly contains references to sex, drug use, and homosexuality, which can be too controversial for some viewers and thus it is harder to find an audience.

The documentary The Other City is a fascinating look at a Washington D.C. most of us never see. The heart and soul of the film lies in the subjects who bravely face not only the disease, but also the stigma attached to it in a society where the system in place that is suppose to help is only a hindrance. The film is a tearjerker but only because you know that the disease is preventable and that no one educated or reformed the city, instead the disease slowly became an epidemic. The film is an excellent example of advocacy filmmaking and really stirs an audience not just for change in the way AIDS is spreading, but how our government handles the disease. The cold-hard facts, the lives of those affected, and the families struggling with this disease leaves the iconic symbols of the United States’s capital a bit more tarnished in my eyes.

Friday, December 3, 2010


An example of sarcastic and witty comedy using outside knowledge to create a community is the adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma as a film: Clueless. Dripping with irony, the entire film has a sarcastic tone, though the characters may not speak sarcastically. While on the surface this film seems to be just a teen comedy loosely based on Jane Austen’s novel, but it actually defines a generation.

Through its pop culture references (using a slang-driven language) and its exaggerated storyline (Cher is comedically held up at gunpoint and then ends up romantically entangled with her stepbrother), the film uses its style to reach out to a generation. Though the Jane Austen references are mostly in the characters and plot, there will be a group of viewers who form a community based on understanding these references.

However, most of the other viewers will form a different community. This community will be based on the generational aspects and pop culture references that require inside knowledge to fully understand. Through the language (i.e. slang: “That’s like so five years ago,” “Check it,” and “As If!”), the clothing (bare midriffs, platform shoes, the 90’s Seattle grunge look), and the music (“Rolling With My Homies” by Coolio, references to Nine Inch Nails and The Cranberries), this film creates an in-crowd feel because some viewers (older generations) will not understand these references. Sitting and watching this film with my parents a few years ago ended up being a futile effort since I found a deep connection to it and laughed consistently, but they didn’t. They are not of the generation who would appreciate this mix of literary history, pop culture, and generational nostalgia. The film thus creates a generation-specific community. The message here is about understanding and participating in your generation’s community through understanding inside jokes and references. Each generation will have a defining style and Clueless epitomizes this. Best of all, the film reminds us that it is okay to stand-alone as a generation and rebel from the previous generations, a requirement for society to progress.