Robert Bilheimer's Speech at the National Press Club
March 12, 2003
Washington, DC

 

I conceived "A Closer Walk," which is a 90-minute feature-length documentary film with the late Jonathan Mann, who died in the crash of Swissair 111, along with many colleagues from the United Nations in September 1998. Jonathan was the architect of the World Health Organization's program on global AIDS, and a beloved visionary who understood that AIDS was not only a deadly infectious disease, but a manifestation of powerful forces that marginalize, discriminate against and stigmatize huge segments of the global population. AIDS, Jonathan kept reminding us, is simply taking advantage of the opportunities society is offering it. Hence, where you have poverty there you have AIDS. Where you have denial of basic human rights, there you have AIDS. Where you have gender inequality -- and AIDS is rapidly becoming, if it isn't already, a women's disease primarily -- there you have AIDS. Where you have conditions that do not encourage human dignity and self-respect, there too you have AIDS.

 

In short, the story of AIDS in the world, as Glenn Close points out in the opening line of the narration of our film, is really a story about the way the world is.

 

Jonathan was also fond of saying that how you define a problem determines what you do about it. Now, one of the biggest problems with AIDS for the 25 years, for the past 25 years, has been that the general public has by and large been absent from a battle that clearly has to be fought on all fronts. Ordinary people in this country and abroad have consistently misunderstood AIDS, been given wrong information about AIDS, not been told about AIDS at all, and have suffered from a massive failure of leadership on this subject as well.

 

In short, ordinary people have been marginalized, have been removed and have been isolated from what has now become the worst public health crisis in human history.

So if the problem on the one hand is that you are fighting a battle without any soldiers, then John and I felt that the solution was to raise an army. And that essentially is the purpose of our film, "A Closer Walk." We are seeking to engage the general public for the first time in a battle that is being waged with infinite courage and dignity by those who are living with AIDS and those who advocate and care for them.

 

But until the world -- until the world is on the side of these people, until there is real solidarity, an already catastrophic situation is only going to get much, much worse. And, believe me, it is getting much, much worse.

 

My colleagues and I lived and worked in AIDS epicenters around the world for three years, beginning in January 2000. Our travels took us to South Africa, which today has the largest AIDS population on the planet. In Natal we ran across infection rates among pregnant women in rural areas of 50 to 60 percent. South Africa today is still experiencing the fall-out from Thabo Mbeki's absurd claim that HIV does not cause AIDS, an astonishing failure in my view of leadership and intellect that has been directly or indirectly responsible for deaths of South Africans.

 

Things are improving now -- slowly -- in South Africa, thanks to the people themselves, to the medical community in that country that has simply said, We will take matters into our own hands.

 

But still in South Africa and throughout the African continent things are still getting worse. AIDS in Africa is a nightmare.

We went to Uganda, which has been held up as a success story in fighting AIDS, which it has, but where you are now seeing millions of orphans. Uganda was hit early on, so you have all these children that were born to parents, but now these children are coming of age, and they represent a new generation of young people who are newly vulnerable to the disease. They have no families, no infrastructures, they don't go to school -- they live on the street. Their numbers throughout Africa will rise to 40 million in the next several years. Now, these orphans could become soldiers in renegade armies, recruits for terrorist organizations, or simply as one African village elder said to me, "beasts in the wilderness."

 

We spent a great deal of time in India, where you have the following: poverty, pervasive and radically unequal treatment of women at all levels of society, a refusal to educate young people or even talk to young people about sex. A population of a billion people that is in fact very sexually active, and a government paralyzed by bureaucracy. All these things point to a disaster in the next few years that will dwarf anything the world has seen so far. If the infection rates in India -- and we are seeing them already -- rise to say 10 percent, which is modest by African standards, you are looking at a hundred million people in that country alone.

 

We went to Ukraine, which along with Russia has the fastest growing AIDS population on the planet. Here economic hard times following the collapse of the former Soviet Union has created a climate of hopelessness and despair among young people who can't find jobs. So they've turn to intravenous drug use. And where you have intravenous drug use there you have AIDS. Infection rates throughout Eastern Europe are absolutely sky-rocketing.

 

And we went to the urban ghettoes of America, where by the same token hopelessness, marginalization, discrimination lead to risky behavior, and where AIDS is now the leading killer of young African American women.

 

And we went to the central plateau of Haiti -- poorest place in the world. People have no money there -- not a little money, no money. And here we found a miracle in the form of the state-of-the-art clinic that was founded by my friend and brother Paul Farmer, a good doctor, as Tracy Kidder called him in his New Yorker profile of Paul about a year ago. Paul simply refuses to accept the operative notion in the world of AIDS that if you are poor and have AIDS you die. Paul's patients get the same kind of treatment that his patients in Boston do. And guess what? They live.

 

Now, as we traveled to all these places, it became increasingly clear to us that AIDS indeed thrives in poverty. It feeds on situations where you find a denial of human rights. It again takes advantage of the opportunities society is offering it -- preexisting conditions. AIDS is simply finding these places. And the more we began to understand this, the more it seemed to me that the film should not just be a travelogue or a catalogue, but really again, going back to this idea of a reflection -- we wanted to paint a picture of the way the world is.

 

And we kept asking ourselves, the more we saw this, How can this be? How can we have let this happen? Because at the moral center of this question is a very, very simple fact: AIDS is a preventable and treatable disease.

 

A year and a half ago I interviewed -- about my fifth trip to India -- His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and had the great honor and privilege of sitting with him with the cameras rolling for about an hour. And I asked him about this, and he said that faced with the reality that we could be doing something but are not, or aren't doing enough, we can only conclude, he said, that we are suffering from a lack of basic human values -- that is, deep human compassion.

 

Now, for 25 years this spiritual truth that we are somehow lacking in the very thing that makes us human -- love, compassion, call it what you will -- has manifested itself in all kinds of ways that has led to the disaster we now face: promises not being kept, too little being done too late, stalling, talking, needless delay, obfuscation while people die, a failure to sustain initiatives, a failure to act, a failure to lead, a failure to grasp the enormity of what's happening even though it's staring us right in the face -- in fact, a whole litany of failure that in my view is nothing less than shameful. I agree with Bono, whom we also interviewed for the film, when he says that we will be judged by God for these failures. He's right. I agree with this soulful Irishman on this point. He's absolutely right. History will judge us harshly, and God will judge us too.

 

The global economist Jeffrey Sachs, another wonderful person who we interviewed for the film, said, "You know, he said after the Second World War, I was brought up to believe this could never happen again." And yet here we are whistling past the global graveyard one more time -- 26 million dead and counting, at the rate of a child, woman or man every eight seconds.

What's it going to take? When are we going to acquire a sense of urgency and perspective about this? You know, does it take evil fanatics commandeering airplanes and crashing into tall buildings to get our attention? Is that what it takes? As Kofi Annan says in the film, "What kind of people are we?"

 

You know, our little piece of good news in all of this is that even at this very early stage of the marketing and distribution campaign for "A Closer Walk" we are getting overwhelming positive response to the film itself and what we are saying, precisely from those ordinary people out there for whom the film is intended. When Steve Sternberg's story was published on February 5th in conjunction with a preview screening like the one we are having tonight, in LA, we got a website up and running, anticipating that there might, you know, possibly be some feedback -- 267,000 hits in three weeks from 57 countries -- just from that story.

 

And, by the way, I've been told to say over and over again the website: acloserwalk.org. Once again, Nils? acloserwalk.org. Let's make it 267,100 or whatever. And the comments, you know, from these people were all the same: "Thank you," "God bless you," "This is much worse than I thought," "How can we have let this happen?," "What can I do to help?," "send me the film -- I want to show it to my family, my community, my co-workers, my congregation," "we have been waiting for something like this," and on and on and on.

So I am encouraged. I am encouraged and feel that in these distracting and dangerous times we actually have the means with "A Closer Walk" to keep AIDS on the global radar screen and also to actually enlist millions of decent, caring, compassionate people all over the world in a war that can in fact be won, a war we can afford, a war that will save the planet and save our souls. It's high time that we began to fight this war. And I stand before you today in our nation's capital on March 12th, in memory of my friend Fezile, to say that if our leaders won't fight this war then we the people will. And you will be hearing from us soon.

 

And I'm a filmmaker, and we like to tell stories and paint pictures. So in closing -- and, Glenn, I may need some help with this, but we'll see -- I would like to read. I wrote journals when I was away shooting this film, and I would just -- just for the next minute or two read to you an except from the journal I wrote when we visited the men's AIDS ward or the AIDS wards at the Tamberam Sanitorium in Chennai, India, just to give you a feel, if you will, for what this is really like out there.

 

There are HIV wards at the hospital in Chennai for children, for women and for men. Each has its own story. In the children's ward there are rows upon rows of boys and girls under five, who are needlessly sick, needlessly dying, because there are no mechanisms to provide their HIV-positive mothers with simple, affordable medications that prevent transmission of HIV from mother to child during pregnancy.

In the women's ward there are no visitors, because to be a woman and to have AIDS in India is to be simply a non-person. Indian women, robbed of their voices long before AIDS arrived to further complicate their lives, are one of the most vulnerable HIV population groups on the planet. The women's wards at the hospital in Chennai are so crowded that there are two patients per bed, sometimes three. One woman sits on the floor, on a bamboo mat waiting her turn, while the other sleeps or rests. They rotate about every eight hours. Ironically the better a woman feels, the more time she spends on the floor. The bed is for those who are dying or in pain.

The men's ward was especially striking because it was so large -- 75 beds in a room easily 100-feet long and 40-feet wide. One each of these beds was sitting or lying an emaciated dying man fully dressed except for shoes. Some of the men slept, some simply lay still staring vacantly at a window, a wall, or at the man lying next to him. One man was vomiting blood, and when he did wise, immaculate nurses in starched gray uniformed with white hats that flared out on the sides like wings encircled him -- angels.

 

His cough, the rack of tuberculosis, penetrated the otherwise silent room like a clap of thunder. There are no drugs to treat these patients, so they are usually discharged, sent home to die in a couple of weeks to make way for the new wave of admissions. One of the doctors told me that he goes home and cries every night, "because I don't know what else to do."

 

When the filming in this ward was over, I could not bring myself to simply walk out and leave, so I went to each individual patient up one row and down the other, and said goodbye to all 75. I did this by putting my hands together and bowing slightly in the traditional Hindu greeting. As it became apparent to the patients what I was doing, each made an effort in a gesture of immense dignity to sit up and greet me in return, often with a smile. Though it was difficult at first, I took great care to look each of the patients in the eye and say thank you. By the time I had gotten to about the fiftieth man, the cumulative weight of their sorrow and mine was causing my eyes to fill with tears. So when I was finished I went out of the ward and stood awhile apart to collect myself before moving on.

 

How many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died? Far too many have died already. The children, women and men in that ward in India tell us one thing and one thing only: each in our own way we need now to walk the walk. Thank you.

 

National Press Club Speech