A Personal Pandemic

The problem with a disease defined by an extraordinary number of dead, infected, and orphaned is that it is all too easy to lose sight of the individual. HIV/AIDS is most often spoken of in millions, but the makers of the documentary A Closer Walk wanted to show people, one at a time, who were infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.

And so filmmaker Robert Bilheimer introduces us to a child, ironically named Lucky, languishing in a hospital ward; a clergyman named Gideon with HIV/AIDS ministering to others who have the disease; a Russian IV drug user named Ruslan; a widow named Octavia who discovers her husband has died of AIDS; and a whimsical farmer in Kansas by the name of Roger. Beautifully photographed and artfully edited, the film simply lets us know these people—who they are, where they live, and who loves them. It is a deceptively simple technique to introduce an often overwhelmingly complex issue.

Woven into their stories are reflections by AIDS activists such as Bono, as well as doctors, researchers, and philanthropists, all attempting to make sense of the modern-day plague that is reshaping our world. Testimonials by the Dalai Lama and Kofi Annan are mixed with the observations of a Kansas mayor and other less-famous individuals, reminding us that everyone has a role to play. Narrated by actors Glenn Close and Will Smith, the film presents both the faces and the facts of the AIDS crisis in understandable terms.

The camera records the horror of a funeral, the tears of a professional, the feeble attempts of a sick child to smile and give a “thumbs up.” It shows AIDS in all its tragedy, person by person. It follows some individuals long enough that we grow fond of them, such as a young Ugandan orphan named Olivia who tells the story of caring for her mother as she died of AIDS. Later we learn that Olivia herself has been sexually abused—an all-too common situation with orphaned girls—and is now infected herself.

WHILE AT TIMES it is hard to watch this documentary, it is more helpfully informative than relentlessly depressing. Remaining neutral on many of the issues that divide those involved professionally with HIV/AIDS, it instead offers insight into the people who are on the frontlines of the pandemic. Shown originally on PBS, excerpts have also been shown on Oprah and other talk shows.

Through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the film is now being used in schools, churches, and with individuals to spread the word about the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The last several minutes of the 85-minute film offer inspiring stories of individuals who have made a difference through a variety of efforts, including Ethan Zohn, winner of one of the Survivor shows, who used his winnings to help found Grassroot Soccer, a nonprofit that helps fight HIV/AIDS.

The film itself is meant to be used as a tool. Updated and available in DVD or 35mm format, it is available for purchase or rental through the www.acloserwalk.org Web site. The site also includes a place to share the information with six other people, using the concept of six degrees of separation as a challenge to get the word out to others.

Acceptable for a school or church setting, A Closer Walk provides a disturbing view of those who are dealing every day with AIDS and perhaps an even more disturbing view of those of us who aren’t. The challenge is simple: Knowing what you do after seeing this film, can you really do nothing? It is, perhaps, the one warning that should be printed on the label of this film.

Dale Hanson Bourke is the author of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Global AIDS Crisis. Authentic, 2006.

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