“The Other City,” a new documentary that tackles issues of homelessness, drug addiction, access to services, and the social stigma of HIV/AIDS, had its world premiere at the Ninth Annual Tribeca Film Festival, which ends May 2. Set in Washington D.C., the movie explores the dichotomy of a city that tourists don’t see and the AIDS epidemic in the nation’s capital that the government sometimes ignores. Although the movie illuminates the heartbreak and loss attributed to the disease, it also reveals the struggles of people behind grassroots movements who provide healthcare, extend education, combat stigmas, and spread hope.
The film, which spotlights personal stories of D.C. residents living with HIV/AIDS in the shadow of the Capitol, was produced bySheila C. Johnson, CEO of Salamander Hospitality L.L.C. and founding partner of Black Entertainment Television (BET). Johnson, a global ambassador for Care, an international AIDS relief organization, has spent time helping women with AIDS in Africa. “When I came back to D.C., I was driving around the city and I could see the same problems there. I was feeling guilty that here in my own backyard I wasn’t paying enough attention to what was going on especially in the African American community,” Johnson told Black Enterprise. “I wanted to really try and bring this out to the forefront and I thought the best way to do that was to do a documentary.”
Washington, D.C. has a higher rate of HIV/AIDS infection than several countries in Africa. At 3%, the HIV-positive population surpasses the 1% threshold that constitutes an epidemic. There were 1,318 deaths in D.C. among persons diagnosed with HIV/AIDS between 2004 and 2007; about 87% of those deaths were among black District residents.
The movie also looks athomelessness and HIV/AIDS. “When you look at the news and they show you the Capitol and the White House, that’s not Washington to me,” says the unidentified homeless man pictured here. In the bottom image, men line up for a homeless shelter. As of January 2009, 2.3% of the adults living in District emergency shelters were living with HIV/AIDS, reports the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness. Homeless people are already three to six times more likely than housed people to become ill, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. Since HIV targets the immune system, crowded shelters with poor ventilation can endanger people with HIV/AIDS by exposing them to infections such as hepatitis A, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and skin infections.
This map shows the numbers of persons living with HIV/AIDS among adults and adolescents by ward in the District of Columbia through 2008. Although blacks account for just 52.2% of District residents over the age of 12, they account for more than 75.6% of residents living with HIV/AIDS. Blacks with HIV/AIDS also face greater barriers to accessing care than their white counterparts, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The Eighth Ward has the highest population of African Americans and also has the highest rate of persons living with HIV/AIDS, with a rate of 3.4%. The HIV death rate in the Eighth Ward is almost 16 times higher than the U.S. rate. The other wards with high populations of African Americans (5, 6, and 7) also had the highest rates of the disease (3.1%, 3.3%, and 2.9%, respectively).
The HIV/AIDS epidemic has had a disproportionate impact on young black women. Black women are 17 times more likely to be living with HIV/AIDS than white women. Black women are most likely to have been infected through heterosexual transmission. “The Other City is going to shine such a bright light on what has become the feminization of an epidemic,” says Jehmu Greene, president of Women’s Media Center, pictured above. “The crisis that we are currently facing in the African American community has gone untold in many ways. The power that we have as a community is to recognize all of the forces that are in play that are creating the rise in HIV/AIDS infections within the African American community.”
During a Q&A with filmmakers after the screening, members of the audience, including AIDS activist Larry Kramer, voiced outrage at what they say was U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin and President Barack Obama’s slow response to the epidemic. In her defense, Benjamin, whose brother died of AIDS 15 years ago, explained that the administration has done a number of things to draw attention to HIV/AIDS, including the creation of the Office of National AIDS Policy. Clockwise: Roland Martin, who moderated the panel; John Legend, who wrote six songs for the documentary; Susan Koch, who directed “The Other City;” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who wrote the screenplay based on his reporting of the topic; Jehmu Greene, president of the Womens Media Center; and Benjamin.
Jose Ramirez (left) and Ron Daniels(center) are central figures in the movie. Daniels contracted HIV/AIDS from an infected needle when he was a heroin addict. He thought it was a disease that happened only to white gay men. Now, as a reformed drug user, he is the needle exchange coordinator for Family & Medical Counseling Service Inc. Seven days a week, he works to exchange used needles for clean ones to help keep drug addicts safe from HIV/AIDS. It is estimated that a third of HIV cases in D.C. can be traced to dirty needles. Among blacks in D.C., the largest proportion of deaths occurred among those whose HIV/AIDS was attributed to intravenous drug use (34.2%) followed by heterosexual contact (29.6%).
In the film, Daniels met with Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) to request more funding for Prevention Works the needle exchange program he worked for at the time. Until December 2007, Washington D.C. was the only municipality in the country not allowed to use its own city funds on needle exchange. In under three years, the District’s needle exchange programs have removed more than 350,000 needles, enrolled 1,300 new clients and provided HIV testing to 3,000 people and linked 325 to drug treatment, according to a report released by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and the D.C. Department of Health. “As far as changing legislation, I just hope ‘The Other City’ makes them take a deeper look at the work that we all do,” Daniels told BlackEnterprise.com after the screening. “I hope that they find a way to continue to provide funding. Right now we receive very little funding…about $125,000 per year and we see 3,000 clients…that is no money, so we are really behind on the eight ball.” For more information about and AIDS resources, visit AIDS.gov