Directed by: Robert Bilheimer
Starring: Glenn Close (narrator), Will Smith (narrator), Bono, the Dalai Lama
The quality of the filmmaking may seem beside the point when dealing with a movie like this, since there's a tendency to evaluate this kind of documentary more by its intentions than its actual content. However, good intentions only carry a film so far, and the whole raison d'etre for an activist documentary carries the imperative that it "works" -- that it connects with and persuades the viewer.
Thankfully, this examination of AIDS as a global epidemic succeeds more often than not, overcoming a well-intentioned but rather trite narration by Glenn Close and Will Smith, who sound altogether too much like they're about to make a pitch for the Christian Children's Fund. The narration may be wanting, but the film's stories and interview subjects are not.
A Closer Walk succeeds because it manages to put a human face on those suffering from AIDS and those combating the disease (of course, some people do both). A beautifully structured documentary, it brings its multiple stories full circle, concluding as it began, thus offering a degree of closure, though the endings are not always pleasant. This is powerful material, especially at a time when AIDS has become a dangerously passe topic on so many fronts.
The film is most powerful when the most hopeful of the disease's victims are front and center, especially a smiling Ugandan girl who wants nothing so much as to turn out to be a "remarkable person." At the same time, the hard facts about the disease's toll are nothing short of staggering, while the general indifference of so much of the world is simply maddening. What, after all, does it say about our own society, that it can get into a frenzy over Janet Jackson's nipple while ignoring millions of AIDS-related deaths?
Besides putting the AIDS crisis in perspective, this film is also handsomely made. It looks all the richer for having been shot on film rather than video -- an unusual move for a documentary these days. This is definitely an important and strong piece of work.
A Closer Walk will be shown twice on World AIDS Day, Dec. 1: at 7:30 p.m. at the Fine Arts Theatre and at 9 p.m. at the Asheville Pizza and Brewing Company.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke