Silverdocs: A Conversation with The Other City Filmmaker Susan Koch
Susan Koch’s documentary, The Other City, focuses on the AIDS epidemic in D.C. The film was done in collaboration with the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Jose Antonio Vargas, who spent several years covering the crisis for the Washington Post. Koch’s other films include Mario’s Story, which chronicles Mario Rocha’s effort to overturn his wrongful murder conviction and Kicking It, which follows participants in the Homeless World Cup. The Other City will be showing at the Silverdocs Festival in Silver Spring this Sunday, June 27. The screening takes place at 6:45 p.m. at AFI Silver Theater 2.
WCP: Many of your films focus on underrepresented segments of the population. What draws you to these stories and how do you feel that filmmaking can bring about justice and change?
SK: I really choose my stories and my films based on my own interests and instincts. I think that one of the things we can do as lay person storytellers is to give a voice to people who might not get a voice as easily as others. For The Other City, it had been about twelve years, really since I had done a feature documentary based here in D.C. And this is my home. I went all over the world for Kicking It, from Afghanistan to Africa, to Ireland. I came back, and I thought, you know, I want to see what’s going on here in D.C.
WCP: Are you a native Washingtonian?
SK: I am, and I had always been struck by this idea of the two Washingtons, that we’re in many ways a divided city. But I didn’t really know how to tell that as a story and how to go beyond the cliché. So I started thinking about it and doing research. I was reading articles by Jose Antonio Vargas in the Washington Post about the AIDS epidemic and I thought that this might be a way of looking at the city. The AIDS epidemic intersects all the disparities that exist in Washington, from incarceration rates to health care to education, race and poverty. AIDS is really a disease of poverty as well as anything else.
WCP: Did you initially approach Jose about a collaboration?
SK: I initially approached him just to talk to him about his articles. I already knew that I was going to make the film and that Sheila Johnson, my producer, was on board. And then I met Jose, and thought 'Wow, this would be great,' we can work together on it.
WCP: At one point Jose refers to AIDS as humanity's greatest failure. That was a really powerful statement.
SK: In this day and age, there’s a lot of ways in which we have failed. We can’t get a grip on this epidemic. I think that a lot of people here feel that attention shifted elsewhere and what was taking place in our own cities–with D.C. being the most blatant example–was being neglected. You saw huge sums of money that were being poured into other places in the world, whereas people here feel that they aren’t getting the fair share that they deserve. This past year I’ve actually spent close to three months in Africa and I’ve done numerous AIDS stories about Africa. I’m not saying that there isn’t an extremely serious urgent issue over there, and you can’t even compare the numbers, but that also doesn’t mean that we don’t want to address what’s in our own backyard.
WCP: You mentioned the neglect of the local AIDS problem by the government. Do you feel that in D.C., maybe the problem stems from the fact that Congress gives us only limited control over our own city?
SK: Absolutely. For so long, the city couldn’t even use its own money to fund its needle exchange program. There was a federal ban, which has just been lifted, and that applied to everywhere, but there was also a separate city ban. That meant that Washington couldn’t even use its own city funds for needle exchange. That just put us so far behind other cities. If you look at those cities that were on the forefront of using a needle exchange program, their rates have been kept lower. About a third of the cases in Washington can be traced to intravenous drug use. When you think about it, it’s not only the drug user who is affected. Who else does that person infect? And in prisons, they told me if a needle can get into a prison, that needle will be used thousands and thousands of times. Then the infected inmates get out and they start having relations with people on the outside.
WCP: Is anything being done about this in the prisons?
SK: Well, they don’t operate a needle exchange program in the prisons because the needles aren’t supposed to be in there in the first place. But there is testing in our prisons. So there are efforts being made, but we have a long way to go.
WCP: Why do you think that we haven’t done a better job combating this disease? It was really eye-opening to hear that 3 percent of Washingtonians are afflicted. Why do you think we waited so long to get these statistics?
SK: It’s very complicated. We touch on this in the beginning of the film. This was not the point of the film. I tried to make this film more personal than statistics driven, but it sets up the film. The crisis was truly mismanaged for so long. We had something like 12 directors of the HIV/AIDS Administration.
WCP: I saw that Shannon L. Hader just stepped down as director a few weeks ago. Apparently her three years in the job made her the longest-serving director of the Administration in nearly a decade.
SK: Yeah, there’s been a ton of turnover. What happened was that this department became a dumping ground for people who were just really getting paid. Something like $400,000 went missing. There is just a wonderful investigative series done by the Washington Post on this called "Wasting Away."
WCP: In addition to the governmental problems, your film touched on a lot of the social and cultural factors that hinder our ability to fight this disease.
SK: It’s an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand, you have the stigma and the shame. And on the other hand, you have people thinking it’s no big deal and that it’s manageable. We had this amazing screening last night. I offered the participants in the film the opportunity to see it first, because I thought, this is going to be very emotional. And they all decided that they were going to see it together. One of the men, the one who lives in a shelter, he just stood up, at the Q and A after and said that because of the stigma and the shame, you keep it a secret and that prevents you from going to get help. You know, you feel that your confidentiality is going to be broken.
Also, a lot of people think that this problem has gone away. In the ’80s and early ‘90s, before antiretroviral drugs, there were visible signs of people dying. People physically wore the disease. And that’s changed in the sense that you can’t look at someone and think, 'Oh, he has AIDS or she has AIDS.' And it was primarily a gay white disease. They were mobilized. The AIDS quilt was on the grounds of the Mall. So it was very visible. That has really receded so it’s interpreted as 'Oh, we don’t need to worry about this any more.' People are not aware of how serious it is.
WCP: It was really startling to hear Larry Kramer talk about how so many people in the young gay population aren’t taking adequate precautions, and how certain reckless behaviors that were curtailed out of fear in the ‘80s are starting to re-emerge.
SK: That’s right. It’s because they haven’t seen it. And Larry is so upset about it because he lived through it. He had so many friends die. And the young people today aren’t seeing that, so they don’t know. And they think like, ‘Oh it’s manageable, you take a few pills and all of a sudden, everything’s fine.’ And yes, under the best conditions, it’s manageable, but it’s a very, very serious disease.
WCP: I noticed that there were a few people in your film who were infected when they were innocent 17-year-old kids who fell in love and were a little bit naïve.
SK: Yeah, it’s very sad, isn’t it? I did some research. Even if you don’t see the statistic on the screen, those inform the way I go about doing things. The CDC has done studies, which show that a lot of people who are infected have had relationships with older guys. At one point, Jose Ramirez said he felt safe with his older partner. His father had abandoned him because he was gay. When he said, 'I felt safe,' I just thought, ‘Oh my god, look what happened. This is the man that infected you!’
WCP: Do you know if there are any kind of legal ramifications or any kind of initiatives to prevent people who know they are infected from concealing their status and having unprotected sex with their partners?
SK: There are two sides to that. People believe that it will put a dent on people coming forward if they feel that there is a possibility of legal action. On the other hand, you can understand why people think there should be repercussions for people who knowingly infect someone. When I started working on the film, one of the characters that we initially followed was actually taking action against the man who had infected her. But those things are very hard to prove. You know, this wasn’t in the film, but a huge number of people were infected by their spouses. It’s scary because if you’re in a marriage, why would you wear a condom with your husband?
WCP: Do you think these examples of young kids getting it and wives getting it from husbands will help fight the view that AIDS is something you bring on yourself?
SK: Yeah, but you know, there is still this attitude that you have to do something wittingly to get it. I frequently talk to people, and they say, ‘Well, if you have HIV, it's because you did something knowingly to get it.’ We’re not putting ourselves in other people’s situations. You know, there’s always lines that resonate with me when I’m doing an interview. They’ll stick out and I’ll think, “Yeah, that’s so simple but I never thought of it that way.” When, J’Mia says that if your partner is going to beat the shit out of you, you’re not going to tell him to put on a condom, I thought ‘You’re right.’ I was thinking, if I were in a relationship, I’d get up and walk away, but I was looking at a still from my own view point.
WCP: There another scene where J’Mia said that if she has to chose between having her kids sleep out in the street, or trading sex for shelter, she’s going to choose the latter, even though she’s infected.
SK: That’s very real world. She’s a mother bear and she’s going to take care of her cubs first and foremost.
WCP: Do you feel that it was a cathartic experience for the people in the film to open up on camera?
SK: I do. If you treat people with respect and dignity, opening up can be very cathartic for them. Tuesday’s screening was such a high for me. Seeing the participants' response, and seeing how excited the men were after seeing it. I was very worried about Jimmy’s family, who had to see that on the big screen. But you know, they really felt that this would do honor to him.
WCP: When you’re filming sick people or dying people, like Jimmy, there has to be a question in your mind about whether something is empathetic or exploitative. How do you go determining how to approach these delicate situations?
SK: You walk a fine line, and it’s a case-by case-basis. I would say to people in the beginning, anytime you want us to leave, just let us know. They don’t exercise that option very often but it’s very reassuring for them to know that they can. Also, we spend a lot of time with the people involved. They begin to forget that you’re there with the camera. I think their comfort lies in their knowing you’re willing to put in the time and that you care enough to get a fuller sense of the story. And trust develops as you spend more and more time with them.
WCP: I noticed that each person in the film had their own set of rituals to get them through the day. Ron wanted ‘I love you’ to always be the last thing he said to his sister before they parted. At Joseph’s House, the hospice you focus on, there was always a goodbye ceremony for people, whether they pass away or just elect to leave.
SK: It’s pretty typical, don’t you think? It’s just the way it is in life. And maybe people who are that close to losing people, they want to make sure that things are said. They understand the stakes. Joseph’s House really understands that its residents need community and that kind of ritual is very important for them. And obviously there would be people participating in these goodbye ceremonies who know that that the same ritual would be done in their memory days or weeks later. Donald was leaving under very different terms than 90 percent of the residents do there, but they still needed to send him off. And it was as hard for them as it was for Donald.
WCP: So what is your next project?
SK: actually just finishing up a film. It’s about the leading female singer in Africa, Yvonne Chaka Chaka. They call her the Princess of Africa. But that’s just 52 minutes. It’s not a long documentary. These films take a long time. They take a big part of your life, and you think, ‘What do I want to do next?’ I don’t know, so if you have any good ideas, I’d welcome them! For now, I’m really happy that I made this film.