Documentaries Offer Deeper Look at Societal Ills

Posted October 4, 2012 at 11:41am

With the election season’s grandstanding on issues ranging from entitlement costs to national security, Americans might be war-weary when it comes to listening to yet another argument about how to fix the litany of problems the country faces. But three documentaries premiering this month in Washington, D.C. — about the drug war, rising health care costs and the early days of the fight for an AIDS treatment — have a way of making viewers think, rather than hit their “tune out” alarm.

“Escape Fire,” a film by Matthew Heineman and Susan Froemke that takes a look at the astronomical rise in the cost of health care and chronic disease in America, opens Friday at the West End Cinema.

The film presents the argument that the answer to fixing the sky-high cost of receiving medical care is right in front of us: If the United States ran a health care system — and invested in preventative measures, rather than a disease-care system focused on treating diseases that could have been prevented — the cost of care would go down and Americans would be healthier.

Refreshingly, the film highlights solutions to making Americans healthier, such as the U.S. military’s use of acupuncture for pain management instead of addictive pills, rather than merely focusing on the problems at hand.

“We really wanted to highlight that there are solutions out there,” Froemke said. “We didn’t want to make a film just talking about the problem because many Americans are living the problem.”

“The House I Live In,” a documentary by Eugene Jarecki that opens Oct. 12 at the West End, is like a real-life version of “The Wire,” as it chronicles the drug war and its societal effects by focusing on Baltimore, Md. The connection to the HBO classic is made all the more direct through the film’s use of “Wire” creator and former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon in the cast.

The documentary chronicles the detrimental cycle of drug use and the punishments drug crimes hold, which Jarecki says negatively affect a wide circle of people that includes not just the drug users but their families, the police who fight the war on the front lines and the judges who are tied into doling out hefty prison sentences, creating an expensive war both financially and morally.

“What I hope this film will do is intensify and arm those who are critical of the drug war inside Capitol Hill [with information], who need to say to those who support the drug war that this is not something we can afford,” Jarecki said, adding that the war on drugs has cost taxpayers more than $1 trillion over the past 40 years and has led to an incarceration rate that disproportionately targets poor and minority citizens. “This is a non-Christian approach, this lack of forgiveness, this lack of mercy, this severe view of the human condition. And not only do we have a moral failure, we have such an embarrassing legacy of failure that it becomes harder and harder for those to defend it,” he said.

The third film, “How To Survive a Plague,” a documentary by journalist David France that premieres Oct. 12 at the Landmark E Street Cinema, uses footage shot by AIDS activists in the “dark days” of the epidemic in 1987 to show how a grass-roots effort was effective in getting government to act, focusing on ACT UP and TAG.

France, who reported on the AIDS epidemic as a journalist in New York City during the 1980s, collected footage from the people he covered at the time, giving a snapshot of the behind-the-scenes fight for HIV/AIDS patients to be accepted by society and for the government to fast-track the approval of drugs to try and slow the fast-spreading illness that was killing thousands.

“I wanted to look back at that period … to look at the role of advocacy and activism that made it possible to survive an HIV infection,” France said. “When you go back and actually do an instant replay on the video tape, you see the tremendous and necessary role of activists in bringing about those changes and transforming the health care system that made it possible to discover a breakthrough in treating the plague.”

France added, “I think the bigger message of the film is one of those fundamentally American messages, that disenfranchised individuals with no experience can accept a desire to overcome terrible circumstances and can actually make a difference.”