By Robert Lalasz

"This is a story about the way the world is."

So begins the film A Closer Walk, a shattering and definitive documentary about the devastating impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic worldwide and the failure of most of the developed world to address it seriously. ECSP brought A Closer Walk to the Wilson Center for a public screening and followed that screening with a discussion featuring the film's creator Robert Bilheimer and Helene Gayle, one of the world's leading authorities on HIV/AIDS.

"Losing the War Because We Choose To"

Narrated by actors Glenn Close and Will Smith, A Closer Walk details the enormous scope of AIDS: that it kills 10,000 people a day (including 2,000 children); has left tens of millions of children orphans; has created not only humanitarian but economic and security crises in sub-Saharan Africa; and is poised to sweep India and other parts of Asia with an epidemic of nightmarish proportions.

As the film notes, HIV/AIDS also disproportionately afflicts the least powerful members of society—women, children, and the poor. In some parts of Africa, for instance, one-third of pregnant women have AIDS.

A Closer Walk also indicts the inaction of wealthier countries regarding the disease, which is now the worst plague in history and will soon have killed more than all the wars of the 20th century. The unwillingness of donor nations to commit lifesaving drugs en masse to the infected (including drugs that would prevent mother-to-child transmission of the disease) has meant that five million children have died of AIDS since the beginning of the epidemic 20 years ago. In 2002 alone, 800,000 children were born with HIV.

"The world is losing the war against AIDS because it chooses to," argues Smith in the film, "not because it has to."

Hitting Home

The film excels at documenting the human face of the disease, moving from a child dying of AIDS in a Ugandan hospital to a Kansas City activist distributing free condoms on a street corner to a doctor who has set up effective distribution of AIDS medications in the poorest slums of Haiti. Through these portraits of pain and hope, A Closer Walk makes the case that the world imperils itself by continuing to ignore the scale of the disease. The film preaches sustained advocacy and political pressure both by individuals and groups as the only way of confronting HIV/AIDS and preventing an ongoing catastrophe of death and debilitation.

In post-screening discussion, Helene Gayle of the Gates Foundation stressed that A Closer Walk is part of an effort to better connect people "to what is clearly one of the most awful tragedies in human society." She stressed that U.S. citizens can have a profound effect on the disease's course by pushing Congress to appropriate the necessary resources and by making contributions to the Global Fund.

Robert Bilheimer discussed the distribution strategy for A Closer Walk, which includes a television release in the fall and a possible theatrical release.

"We have just been flabbergasted by the desire and the enthusiasm that ordinary people feel about this subject [after watching the film]," said Bilheimer. "We may be sitting in the lap of history—-we may well be in a position to engage…a revolution in AIDS awareness that might curtail the course of the epidemic itself."