It’s not hard to be a Monday morning activist. In fact, it’s quite natural for folks to look back at the past that other people participated in and convince themselves that they would’ve done different. No one cares to be on the wrong side of history and, contained within the realm of retrospect and memory, we never will be. Hollywood knows this, which is why films so rarely deal with contemporary social ills, often opting to tackle the less morally ambiguous issues of the past. It isn’t surprising that 12 Years A Slave, a film adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s 160 year old slave narrative, managed to haul in $187 million at the box office and win best picture at the 2013 oscars, while a movie like Fruitvale Station, a dramatized account of the last day in the life of Oscar Grant—an unarmed 22 year old black man from Oakland who was shot at point blank range in the back by police while being forcibly restrained in the early hours of New Years Day in 2009—only pulled in $17 million and got snubbed by the Academy. Audiences are much more comfortable addressing problems that have been removed from the reality of their day to day lives.
Much like other troubling topics in American life, the popular narrative of the HIV/AIDS crisis has been largely confined to the increasingly distant past as of late. The tremendous success of The Dallas Buyer’s Club—a “based on a true story” film starring the emaciated figures ofMatthew McConaughey as “straight” rodeo cowboy Ron Woodruff who is diagnosed with AIDS and eventually starts an underground pharmacy of sorts to sell unapproved HIV meds and Jared Leto, who plays a fictional trans woman that befriends Woodruff and helps run the business—and HBO’s revival of The Normal Heart—a 30 year old play about the HIV/AIDS crisis in New York’s gay community in the 1980s—underscore the notion that Americans are comfortable confronting HIV, but only as something removed from the present. As a result, when most people in this country picture the AIDS epidemic in America, they imagine a young, middle class, gay white man living in Manhattan or The Castro, which is simply not the case anymore. With 50% of all new HIV infections occurring in the south and the bulk of those infections happening within the poorest, rural pockets of the African-American community, the US AIDS epidemic looks nothing like it did 20 years ago.
It is for this, among many reasons, that I urge you go to click on the link to the Kickstarter page of deepsouth, a phenomenal documentary film about the HIV/AIDS crisis in the heart of the American south. If you care to read my review of the film, I have reprinted it below. However, the main purpose of this post is really to ask you to consider giving whatever you can to make sure that this incredible movie is distributed as far and wide as possible. Lisa Biagiotti—the film’s director—has devoted 5 years of her life to the task of trying to share the stories of the men and women suffering from this burgeoning epidemic that no one seems to want to talk about and it would be truly awful if she were to come up a couple thousand dollars short at the finish line.
More than two and a half years ago, I happened to come across a trailer for deepsouth on the web. From the moment I saw that trailer, I knew that I had to be a part of helping this film to reach the potential endowed to it by Lisa, Director of Photography Duy Linh Tu and Editor Joe Lindquist. By this point, I have probably seen the film a dozen times. I’ve been fortunate enough to help bring deepsouth to the University of Maryland-Baltimore and proselytize the film to anyone who would listen. I’ve had the privilege of spending time with the true stars of the film; people like Josh and Cedric and Kathie and Monica who are truly on the front lines on the fight against HIV right here and right now, where resources are scarce and awareness often nonexistent.
If you don’t believe me. If you don’t believe that this film is filled with beautiful, tragic truths about an epidemic that kills thousands of men, women and children in the deep south every year, I ask of you to just watch the trailer for the film below. And after you do, I hope you willhelp donate to their Kickstarter campaign because deepsouth is too brilliant and too vital to not be seen. It’s not Monday morning yet. You can still make a difference.
deepsouth: A Film Review
“Some things you must always be unable to bear. Some things you must never stop refusing to bear. Injustice and outrage and dishonor and shame. No matter how young you are or how old you have got. Not for kudos and not for cash: your picture in the paper nor money in the back either. Just refuse to bear them.” – William Faulkner
Not just any old thing has the ability to be haunting. For something to haunt you it has to have a thick, rib-sticking power that doesn’t fully hit you until you try to stop thinking about it, but can’t. When it comes to art, haunting happens when despair is made beautiful. It is the feeling we have when we see tragedy done right, without the trappings of over-sentimentality or embellishment. These are the things that resonate with us. Most sounds dampen quickly upon their entry into the world. They hit a wall or fade off into the distance away from our knowing. It is the resonant sound that keeps its energy as it bounces all around us, slowly draining away but never letting us forget that it’s there. It is for this that films like deepsouth exist. They are messengers of pain that we are ignorant of and they come to us in the only way that we’ll listen. People can be bombarded with facts about the harsh realities of HIV and poverty in the South, but all they do is get filed away into the dusty stacks of our brains alongside the million and one other things we heard during our day. To reach people, you have to tell a story. This is what deepsouth is—a couple of stories told over 72 minutes that play on a truism men and women far brighter than I have known forever: in order to reach people’s minds you have to go through their soul.
At its heart, deepsouth is a series of vignettes focusing on the lives of three men and women who can be seen as representing the length and breadth of the struggle with HIV in the deep south. Being a Yank myself (albeit one from Cincinnati, a city about as south as Union cities get), I had a very different conception of what it meant be in the “deep south.” As far as this film is concerned—and as a more or less standard definition—the deep south consists of Alabama, Mississippi & Louisiana. In the film, director Lisa Biagiotti follows around people from each of these states.
We’re first introduced to Josh, a twenty-something, openly gay, black man from Mississippi who’s going through issues that millions of his Millenial contemporaries are experiencing as well. He can’t stay string together more than one or two semesters together at college because his financial aid keeps running out and he’s struggling to figure out his place in both his biological family and his circle of friends who actually perform the functions of family. On top of this he has to deal with the cadre of problems that confront gay men within the often homophobic black communities of the bible belt. Oh yeah, and he was diagnosed with HIV five years ago.
The other two storylines focus on an HIV advocate, Kathie Hiers of Birmingham, AL, and a Louisiana woman named Monica who has been living with HIV for over 28 years and helps run a retreat for HIV positive southerners. Not coincidentally, while Kathie spends 1/3 of the year on the road representing her organization, AIDS Alabama, and trying to increase funding to the rural south, Monica and her partners are struggling to put on their small retreat after having all of their funding cut. If Josh is emblematic of the stigma and struggles suffered by the LGBT & HIV communities in the deep south, then Kathie & Monica are a bellwether for the lack of funding and awareness of HIV their respective states. Watching Kathie advocate for changes in the Ryan White Care Act funding streams to accurately reflect the modern demographic makeup of the virus is a lot like watching a son or daughter try to interrupt and talk sense into their feuding parents. She has to know that they won’t be listening to a lot of what she has to say, but she plugs ahead anyway because what else is there to do?
The three main threads of the film interweave nicely and are interspersed with a number of smaller mini-features on other local figures, from a Birmingham pastor who preaches about the demonic properties of homosexuality to a Alabama social worker who drives 30,000 miles every year just handing out pamphlets and visiting clients in the far-flung recesses of the western part of the state where medical care is sparse and HIV is rampant. The natural flow of the film owes itself to the fantastic editing and cinematography that pervade most ofdeepsouth. This wasn’t filmed like a documentary, or at least not like the Ken Burns style, sit in front of the camera and cut to archival footage type documentary I’m accustomed to seeing. It never seems like anyone is ever being interviewed in deepsouth. Even when a subject is alone in a scene, it seems more like a monologue than a conversation, as if the presence of the camera has given everyone in the movie free rein to say whatever little thing happened to be on their minds. This, along with its unobtrusive, yet tight camera work gives the film a very intimate feeling and makes it very easy to forget you are watching a documentary.
Ultimately, deepsouth succeeds in the only thing a piece of art need succeed at: it speaks to people. Documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth or Bowling For Columbine don’t speak to people. They speak at people. In deepsouth, director Lisa Biagiotti and the entire cast & crew of the film do what southerners do best. They charm you. They cook you a whole mess of food that everybody knows you finish and you end up feeling like you’re going to bust your gut at the end of the night without knowing if its because you just ate a ½ pound of brisket or because you haven’t stopped laughing for the past hour. This film isn’t a polemic. It’s not designed to boil blood and rile folks up. No one’s thrown under the bus and there’s no Edward R. Murrow moralistic diatribe at the end. It’s a story and it’s a haunting one at that, which is why it sticks with you. It’s why I’ll remember it.