NEW YORK, Dec 13 (IPS) - A wrenching new documentary about
HIV/AIDS seeks to firmly connect the numbing statistics with the
faces and names of people suffering from the disease, and the men
and women fighting to get them treatment with few or no
"This is a story about the way the world is," the narration says.
"It is a world that has allowed a deadly but preventable and
treatable disease to thrive in the human family for more than 20
years, infecting or killing more than 60 million of its members."
Ultimately, "A Closer Walk" serves as a powerful condemnation of
the indifference of rich countries toward the disease outside
their own borders -- and in many cases, within them as well.
"What sort of people are we?" wonders U.N. Secretary-General Kofi
Annan in the film. "Can we use the words compassion, humanity,
dignity toward our fellow man and woman? They all become hollow."
Robert Bilheimer, an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker, and his
crew logged 150,000 miles of travel in the course of making 'A
Closer Walk', roaming from hospitals in Uganda and India to the
slums of Haiti, the Ukraine and the United States.
"One of the realities is that the general public has not been
part of the struggle in any way," said Bilheimer at a screening
of the film hosted by the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative
in New York. "They have been disengaged from any meaningful sense
of what this pandemic is about."
"AIDS is going to leave a fossil-like imprint on civilisation
that we can't even begin to imagine yet," he said. "This is a
film that serves the purpose of reaffirming basic notions and
ideals about human dignity and human rights."
The film offers a glimpse of the Tambaram AIDS clinic in Chennai,
India, where the women's ward is so crowded that each bed is
shared by at least two patients who rotate in 12-hour shifts.
"The future of the epidemic, as in so many other things, is in
Asia," says Peter Piot, the executive director of UNAIDS.
Most of the patients at Tambaram are women who have been
ostracised by their husbands and families because they are sick.
None have access to medicine.
"We have no proper system to care for our HIV patients. They have
to walk for miles to find someone who is interested to look after
them," says N.M. Samuel, a doctor at the clinic.
In fact, less than five percent of the estimated 42 million
people with AIDS globally have access to the drugs that have
eased mortality rates in rich countries by 70 percent.
The new 5-billion-dollar fund to fight the virus promised by U.S.
President George W. Bush to fight the virus has yet to
"The disturbing thing to me is that we're getting into a whole
new generation," Bilheimer added. "These orphans are starting to
come of age now, and this population is even more vulnerable to
the disease than their parents were since so many are living on
Some 2,000 children are born with HIV every day. Five million
have died since the beginning of the epidemic.
In South Africa, 1,500 people a day are infected with the virus.
"It was so heartbreaking to see myself dying and to see my son.
How do you say goodbye to your child? How do you tell him that
you're dying?" says Musa Njoko, a South African AIDS activist.
"If you don't have money you die. If you have money, you
In Uganda, Dr. Peter Mugyenyi does his best to ease the suffering
of patients at the Joint Centre for Clinical Research in Kampala.
Many are tiny children, barely clinging to life.
"You see someone showing symptoms of AIDS, and you have the
awesome job of sending the patient home without treatment,
knowing he's going to die," Mugyenyi explains, shaking his head.
One of the film's most courageous and poised speakers is Olivia
Nantongo, who was left alone at age 12 after dropping out of
school to care for her HIV-positive mother.
At the request of Sandy Thurman of the International AIDS Trust,
Olivia agreed to travel from her village in Uganda to the United
States to address cabinet members and Vice President Dick Cheney
about the harsh realities of AIDS in Africa.
"We didn't know at that time that Olivia too was HIV-positive,"
Thurman later recalls, choking up. "And although I was sitting in
the office of the most powerful man in the world, I couldn't
develop a programme that would get her the simple medications
that cost 500 dollars a month to save her life."
Thurman ended up paying for Olivia's drugs out of her own pocket,
but it was already too late. The 20-year-old had developed
meningitis, wasted away and died within months.
However, her spirit and determination will not be forgotten.
"Make me someone," Olivia says at one point. "I've gone through
all this, but I'd like to be a remarkable person."
On Dec. 1, World AIDS Day, the film reached mass audiences in
dozens of countries, thanks largely to a screening on the popular
U.S.-based 'Oprah Winfrey Show'. But perhaps the point of 'A
Closer Walk' is that every day should be 'World AIDS Day'.
"We don't know what we've lost," says international pop star and
activist Bono. "And I think history is going to be incredibly
hard on us."
+A Closer Walk
+International AIDS Vaccine Initiative
+Treatment Action Campaign