A film screening at UNC-Chapel Hill last week about the global AIDS epidemic sparked some thinking about the limits of altruism.

More than 200 people showed up at the Carolina Union to see the documentary A Closer Walk–the first in a series of films and discussions organized by the schools of public health, medicine and journalism at UNC.

The documentary is being shown on college campuses across the United States and at film festivals around the world in hopes it will generate what filmmaker Robert Bilheimer described as a “movement” to turn the global tide of AIDS. A Closer Walk purposely avoids technical discussion and instead posits AIDS as a human rights issue. It’s main message: AIDS is a preventable disease that is killing millions of people–most of them poor women and children in developing nations.

The crowd at UNC was braced for emotion. In the aisle across from me, a box of Kleenex was at the ready for anyone who might need it. “We’re going to have to share those,” said a woman behind me, who’d seen the film before. On that score, the documentary didn’t disappoint. From the opening image of a dying Ugandan girl–paper-thin and moaning–to the portraits of AIDS orphans on a stairwell in India, there were numerous hard-to-take moments. During the screening, the auditorium stayed hushed except for frequent sniffling and a few audible sobs.

Clearly the audience was touched by what it had seen. But when the lights came up, questions emerged about the film’s appeal to sentiment. “I’ve seen the movie a few times,” one woman said during a post-screening chat with Bilheimer. “I like how the underlying structural inequities in the world are linked to the epidemic. But the response is, charity. The main thing people are left with is throwing money at it.”

I knew what she meant. We’ve seen images of dying poor people before. And “throwing money” at other global problems like famine hasn’t stopped them from recurring. Pity, it seems, is a fleeting emotion. Lasting compassion is more likely when our brains as well as our hearts are engaged.

Bilheimer (who’d been exhorting viewers to create a grassroots AIDS movement akin to the Civil Rights Movement or efforts to end apartheid in South Africa) admitted he’s not sure how the documentary will work as an organizing tool. “We’re talking about putting this on prime-time TV. We have a Web site,” he said. “But I’m going to just tell you flat out, we’re not satisfied yet with what we’ve come up with.”

To an older man who cited the need to appeal to viewers’ “self interest” by showing how AIDS threatens them, Bilheimer said, “I don’t buy the self-interest argument. I think AIDS is a moral issue.”

True enough, I thought, as I left the auditorium. But unless you’re the Dalai Lama (one of the film’s celebrity interviewees), or someone who’s been personally affected by AIDS, such an enlightened response might not come so readily. As for organizing, there was a grassroots AIDS movement in this country in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. That’s when ACT UP led the charge for more funding and research in the face of government indifference and finger-pointing by Jesse Helms-style conservatives who harped on HIV as a “gay disease.”

A Closer Walk doesn’t acknowledge the changes that have taken place since the AIDS virus was first identified. But that’s because its perspective is global. Unlike in wealthier countries where people are now living with AIDS, in most of the world, it remains a death sentence. The movie points out that in Africa, 99 percent of people with HIV have no access to treatment.

Bilheimer said he was moved to make the film when he realized that “for 25 years, the public has been absent from the battle” to stop AIDS from spreading around the globe. “The United States has the resources all by itself to engage this, the greatest of all weapons of mass destruction,” he added, to applause from the crowd.

Yet, his documentary avoids the necessary finger pointing. There is no discussion of the role big drug companies have played in the failure to expand access to AIDS drugs; no talk of how conservatives in many countries have fought needle-exchange programs and comprehensive sex-education; no mention of how very little the developed world spends on foreign aid of any kind, let alone on AIDS.

Instead, there are images of the dying and the vulnerable, few of whom actually speak on camera. Those who do speak focus on the moral challenge AIDS poses. “We will be judged by God for this,” warns Bono of U2.

Of course, no film can carry the burden of a social movement. A Closer Walk is a way to get people to care about AIDS; it’s not a solution to the epidemic. For Bilheimer, it’s all about taking that first step. “It’s about a basic sharing of knowledge,” he says. “Get a copy of the movie and show it to some friends. Then get them to show it to their friends.” It’s what Will Smith, one of the documentary’s other celebrity narrators calls “Six Degrees of Communication.”

We certainly need to keep talking about AIDS. Just last week, a new outbreak of HIV among male college students in North Carolina was reported at the 11th annual Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections.

To find out more about the documentary, go to www.acloserwalk.org. For details on UNC’s “Narratives of HIV” series, go to www.medicaljournalism.org .