Veteran documentary filmmaker Susan Koch, a straight woman who grew up in Bethesda, Md., knew her new film “The Other City” wasn’t destined to be the feel-good hit of the year. The former journalist, however, says it “tells a story that needs to be told.”
An exploration of the dichotomy between the powerful and impoverished extremes of the District and how those extremes factor into the local AIDS crisis, Koch says “City” was never conceived as a project with high commercial appeal.
“It’s like, ‘Hey, wanna go check out this film on AIDS?,'” Koch says in a faux sing-songy voice during a phone interview. “But that’s not the reason you make films, especially documentaries. You make them because you want to shed a light on things that have been in the dark for too long.”
“City” is one of two gay-themed documentaries with upcoming screenings that have a D.C. connection. It will be shown Tuesday at the Newseum then later next week at Silverdocs, a local documentary film festival (silverdocs.com). A new cut of the 2009 film “Out in the Silence,” made by local gay filmmakers Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer, will be screened in New York Monday and broadcast on Maryland Public Television Wednesday night at 10:30 with a rebroadcast at 2:30 a.m. Thursday morning. A June 29 broadcast is slated for local PBS affiliate WETA at 10 p.m. (visit http://wpsu.org/outinthesilence/ and theothercity.com for more information).
Wilson and Hamer, who wed in Canada in 2004, felt similarly about their story, which started when they submitted a wedding announcement to the Derrick, a newspaper in Wilson’s hometown of Oil City, Pa. The paper ran the announcement without hesitation but its publication ignited a firestorm of controversy that played out for months in letters to the editor. In desperation, Oil City resident Kathy Springer, whose gay son CJ was being harassed daily in school, tracked down Wilson in Washington and begged for help. She was at wit’s end and found hope in the marriage announcement.
“She doesn’t use computers or any modern technology so we got this 17-page handwritten letter,” Wilson says. “She was a mother who felt helpless and didn’t know where else to turn. I guess she saw [our announcement] as a lifeline.”
Wilson says receiving her letter was “emotional” and “profound.”
“We knew we had to go meet them,” he says.
Hamer, a scientist, and Wilson, a human rights activist, decided to film their visit. They’d dabbled in short films, but had never shot a feature. Wilson says he was inspired by a desire to play a positive role in his hometown community where it wasn’t acceptable to be openly gay. They ended up filming nearly 300 hours of footage on weekend trips to Oil City over a three-year period.
“There are stories like this going on all over the place,” Wilson says. “But they just aren’t seen or little attention is paid to them, particularly in our own movement. The will or the capacity or the resources of our own movement just doesn’t direct attention in the way it should to these areas so we tried to shine a light that we felt was needed.”
Needed for what?
“The thing is, everywhere you go there are tons of gay people,” Hamer says. “That’s what the title really refers to. Their friends might know or other people might know but it’s very rarely talked about. It’s considered offensive or worrisome, but there really is this subterranean gay activity that’s never fully acknowledged. It’s just hard for LGBT folks there to identify allies and have their voices heard.”
The movie was released last year, shown on PBS and at Reel Affirmations, D.C.’s gay film fest. But it’s had a second life of sorts. A Sundance grant enabled the filmmakers to add 10 minutes to “Silence’s” running time. They’re working with the ACLU and PFLAG to have the film screened in small towns around the country including all 67 counties in Pennsylvania.
“We call libraries, we have a community educational program, we run articles in the local newspapers, invite people from across the community to engage in dialogue,” Wilson says. “We’ve lived in an urban area for the last 20 or 30 years so we’ve become more aligned with the establishment, you know, advocacy thinking in urban America and we’re largely in agreement with what those goals are, there are important legislative goals and so on. But what we’ve found is that those demands that exist on that level don’t necessarily line up with real people’s lives in small areas. They have a lot of other, very different needs.”
The impetus for Koch’s film was much different. She found inspiration in a series of 2006 articles by gay journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who was hired by the Washington Post fresh out of college in 2004. He’d been shocked at the cultural gulf between prominent lawmakers and lobbyists and poverty-stricken, disenfranchised D.C. residents and how that gulf played out in the city’s AIDS crisis.
“When people think Washington, D.C., all they know is the official Washington, D.C.,” Vargas says. “I was exploring this whole other D.C., where, of course, there’s a huge gay population. I mean I lived in the Castro in San Francisco and sometimes I honestly think D.C. is gayer. More button-downed gay, but still very gay. So you have this Capitol Hill mindset, this gay culture, which I found really fascinating, and all these incredibly bright and accomplished and educated gay people and then a really growing Hispanic population and then you realize that D.C. is predominantly black. I didn’t know what chocolate city was. So you take the bus from U Street right into Anacostia and it’s like this squatter area or something within just a few miles of the White House. So for me I was really telling the story of the other D.C., which was my way of telling how HIV and AIDS spread in D.C.”
Koch vaguely remembers seeing one of Vargas’s Post articles but didn’t realize it was part of a series until later. She’d finished her last film “Kicking It,” about homeless soccer leagues around the world, and was reading old Post articles online cruising for inspiration.
“I was like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know about this,'” Koch says of D.C.’s 3 percent HIV infection rate. “The fact that we have these kinds of rates really troubled me. It seemed like kind of a well-kept secret. I would talk to people I knew and they always act stunned. Even though he’s done this groundbreaking series, it didn’t seem to register.”
Koch and Vargas collaborated on the film shooting for about 10 months in 2009. Many of the subjects had been quoted in Vargas’s story but not all. The film features Ron Daniels, a straight former drug addict who runs a needle exchange van; J’Mia Edwards, a straight single mother who got AIDS from a former boyfriend; Jose Ramirez, a gay Latino teen who got infected from his older boyfriend who eventually died; and Jimmy, a 35-year-old white gay man who died of AIDS during shooting.
“We were with him from the moment he came into [care site] Joseph’s House until he was taken out in a body bag,” Koch says. “He’d been on lots of different treatments and just got resistant and his body couldn’t handle it. That’s a point that’s really important — gay men are still dying of AIDS in 2010 and I don’t think that’s acceptable.”
“The Other City” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April.
“I really hope everyone sees this,” Vargas says. “Most people probably don’t get a chance to see the fullness of the city very often.”