Life isn’t pretty on the front lines of Washington, D.C.’s fight against an HIV/AIDS epidemic that now officially qualifies as such. But the war is being fought with dignity and grace by the bloodied yet unbowed everyday citizens profiled with a balance of clinical detachment and emotional warmth in “The Other City,” from longtime resident and docu vet Susan Koch. Short on high drama but long on a tonally appropriate melding of indignation and compassion, pic will be a useful tool on the fest circuit and the smallscreen in raising awareness of this simmering crisis.
Less interested in pointing fingers than in spotlighting daily, rank-and-file heroism of the infected and those who minister to them (though there’s plenty of both), pic opens with the jarring stat that D.C. has a higher per-capita HIV/AIDS rate than Port-au-Prince and Dakar (3% are infected; 1% indicates an epidemic). Action is bookended by musings from former Washington Post writer Jose Antonio Vargas, whom Koch sought out to shape her idea for the film.
Those profiled include Ron Daniels, who fell ill via his heroin addiction and now runs a needle exchange van that patrols the poorer parts of town; Puerto Rican immigrant Jose Ramirez, bringing a theatrical exuberance to his nighttime condom-distribution patrols of the notorious P Street Beach cruising area; the dedicated staff and determined residents of Joseph’s House, which provides a last refuge for formerly homeless men and women with terminal illnesses; and the Courage to Change Group, a confederation of formerly incarcerated AIDS sufferers preparing for an autobiographical theater presentation.
Most moving story is that of single mother J’Mia Edwards, who contracted AIDS from an older boyfriend. On the verge of being kicked out of a subsidized apartment with her three young children, she swings into action, determined to get her family relocated. “I’m tired,” she plaintively tells yet another group of well-meaning bureaucrats, “and I need my housing.”
Pic’s chief strength is its avoidance of stridency. Though Vargas comes across as borderline preachy, pithy points are made by a variety of talking heads that include AIDS activist Larry Kramer, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton and columnists Frank Rich (a D.C. native) and Colbert King.
Tech aspects are tidy, even when vet d.p. Neil Barrett — yes, another resident — seems to be shooting in a rare Washington snowstorm. In addition to the pair of John Legend tunes deployed, Bill Withers’ “Call Me” and Jonathan Larson’s “Will I Lose My Dignity,” from the “Rent” soundtrack, are sung as inspiration by some participants.