AIDS Documentary Captures Humanity on Film

InCamera January 2003

A Closer Walk is billed as the first film to provide a definitive portrayal of mankind's confrontation with the AIDS pandemic.

Robert Bilheimer, an Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Feature for 1988's Cry of Reason, conceived the project along with Jonathan Mann in 1996. Mann, the architect of the World Health Organization's program on global AIDS, died in 1998 in the crash of Swissair Flight 111. Bilheimer and Mann envisioned the film as a way to counteract the ignorance and denial surrounding the AIDS crisis. They put their faith in the film medium as a way to change the way people think. Bilheimer says that one key point is that AIDS and other infectious diseases travel along transnational fault lines of poverty and discrimination.

The filmmakers decided that A Closer Walk, which is narrated by Will Smith and Glenn Close, should be more than a documentary restating the facts about AIDS. They conceived a film to present a lesson a about the responsibilities of world citizenship, and what it means to be part of the human family. Towards that end, Bilheimer and cinematographer Richard Young chose to record interviews and personal stories in Super 16mm film format. Bilheimer says that decision is in line with the overall design of the film that delves into the humanity of the people infected by AIDS.

"A lot of the documenting that's been done about AIDS in the last 20 years has been by news crews coming into hospitals and sticking video cameras in peoples' faces," he says. "What's been missing is an understanding of the underlying causes of the epidemic and a sensitive portrayal of the toll that AIDS has exacted in human terms. A great deal of the journalism has reinforced many of the stereotypes that AIDS is an African problem and that they are somehow responsible for its spread. For the most part, this has been immensely counterproductive and is one of the main things that A Closer Walk is trying to remedy."


"The real power of the film medium is that it provides the ability to present and represent human beings with all their inherent dignity. That is precisely the essence of the issue itself - that people with AIDS have been marginalized, stigmatized, and discriminated against even before the epidemic came along. Our fundamental task was to restore or give dignity to the people who have AIDS and are living in poverty. That demanded film."

Bilheimer points to The Family of Man, a book of photographs edited by Edward Steichen, as one source of inspiration. "The texture of that photography was very influential," he says. "The world presented in that book is textured and has nuances. The humanity of the subjects comes through. In our film, we want audiences to connect on their own with the subjects, so how they are presented is crucial."

Cinematographer Richard Young used an Aaton XTRprod camera. Craig Braden, who sometimes shot with a second camera assisted him. Since the team shot in every conceivable situation, they used every type of color film stock made by Kodak. Lighting equipment often had to be improvised. 

"Film captured the lighting, the color, and nuance and emotion that was essential to this story," says Young. "We shot exteriors - hospitals, funerals, weddings, churches in the sun, clouds and rain. We shot the interiors of hospitals with fluorescents, with daylight, or no light except bare bulbs. Beautiful backlight, or windows fours stops over - only film can capture these realities in their beauty and rawness."

Young shot more than 100 hours of 16mm Kodak film. More than 75 people have been interviewed in a dozen countries. Bilheimer notes that the development of the 800-foot film magazine in Super 16mm format has been a boon for documentarians.

The interviews were conducted under a wide spectrum of conditions, ranging from ideal to the worst imaginable. "Richard (Young) and his Aston camera were totally unobtrusive, and treated the film as if it were fragile," he says, "but the bottom line is that it's an incredibly robust medium." Not a frame of film was lost, according to Bilheimer.