June 4, 2012
Last week, the Internet was buzzing about the trailer for a new documentary about HIV in the South. The film, deepsouth, follows a young, black, gay man from the Mississippi Delta who is doing his best to endure the stigma and homophobia; two best friends who are preparing for their annual HIV retreat in rural Louisiana; and an Alabama activist who travels throughout the country speaking her truth.
View the trailer:
TheBody.com caught up with the film's director, Lisa Biagiotti, to talk about what prompted her to make deepsouth, the process of getting people living with HIV to participate and what she hopes viewers take away from her labor of love.
What made you want to do this film? And why the South?
In 2009, I was working on some stories on the intersection of HIV and homophobia in Jamaica when I stumbled upon some appalling HIV statistics in the American South.
I was a little stunned, because I had thought HIV/AIDS was under control in the U.S. I read research report after research report, analyzed stat after stat. In June 2010, I made my first road trip (of 12) across the South and simply started talking to people -- anyone and everyone.
In the past few years, several research organizations have been examining HIV, health infrastructure and poverty in the South, so there's a lot of new data and good momentum behind exposing some of these issues. But there seemed to be a disconnect between these numbers and the experience. So we really set out to document the experience, the reality behind all these data points.
Why had you believed that HIV was under control in the U.S.?
I think it's generally thought that the fight against AIDS in the U.S. is largely over. Most of the mainstream media coverage focuses on the global epidemic. The domestic coverage looks at the epidemic from the limiting lens of an urban scourge. There's an abnormal history of HIV in the South, one which few people even know. When I tell people I'm working on a documentary about HIV in the Deep South, the overwhelming response is: "You mean the Deep South of the United States?"
Stigma is huge everywhere, but the South can be its own entity. Was it difficult to find people who wanted to take part in the film? And were all of the people who were positive who participated advocates who did HIV-related work?
I reported in the South for at least a year before we started filming our main subjects. I drove 13,000 miles, filled 18 notebooks and interviewed 400 people in the process.
The more I showed up, the more people were willing to talk to me. I started piecing together parts of this fragmented, disjointed and vast story. Many people I spoke with would never appear on camera. The stories they shared with me became the invisible backbone of deepsouth.
Trip after trip, producer/DP Duy Linh Tu and I asked each other questions like: How do we visually document an invisible story? How do we effectively tell a story no one wants to talk about? Is this just better as a magazine article? The evolution of our storyboard is almost comical. A lot of rabbit holes and dead ends!
It took some time for our main subject, Josh (who is young and gay and black), to agree to go on camera. We originally concealed his identity, because his mom didn't want him potentially exposed to harm and scrutiny. When we showed Josh the "Secrets" clip, he basically convinced himself to be a part of the film. He's an incredibly brave man.
Not all of the people featured in the film are advocates. In fact, most of them are not advocates. One of the story lines takes place at an HIV retreat in northern Louisiana, where about 70 Southerners affected by HIV come together for the three-day retreat. Another story line ends up at a 30-person, gay family BBQ in Jackson, Miss.
What are some of the biggest issues in the South that your film captures in terms of the HIV epidemic? Did anything shock you?
We cover a lot of sensitive topics, including slavery, poverty, race, molestation, rape, religion, homophobia, education and rural America.
Early on, our goal was to make a documentary about HIV, where you almost forgot you were watching a documentary about HIV. And that's because HIV is really symptomatic of a lot of negative outcomes in a fragile place. We explore those environmental risk factors in this film. Where we find high rates of HIV, we find high rates of STIs [sexually transmitted infections], teen pregnancies, poverty, high school dropouts, incarceration, unemployment, etc.
What touched you the most when filming this? Was there an experience that you had (a particularly touching interview, etc.) that really reminded you why doing this film was so important?
The pattern I found in my interviews with black, gay men was particularly heavy. Their lives follow similar patterns: childhood trauma, sexual ambiguity, HIV infection, attempted suicide and a life of isolation. In rural areas, these men don't even know there are others out there like them.
I remember sitting for five hours eating Chinese food with one man who never told anyone his life story. It was a little like a second-hand trauma for me, but he felt such relief and release. I thought, wow, this is incredible, but I should not be the first person he talks to about this. But who could he possibly talk to in the Mississippi Delta?
You did some past work on HIV, homophobia and the Caribbean. What are some of the similarities and the differences between the South and the Caribbean?
The South reminds me a lot of the Caribbean -- it has a rich culture, history of slavery, stalwart religious traditions, close-knit (and judgmental) families/communities. My mother's family is Jamaican and sometimes I felt like the only difference between the two cultures was the accent.
The Caribbean, specifically Jamaica, has recognized HIV as a more generalized epidemic, meaning that it's not only associated with one group -- like gay men. I believe that this helps messaging and outreach. But, like the rural South, the gay community in Jamaica operates underground. It's just not acceptable to be gay.
All the chatter of President Obama's support of gay marriage is so foreign in the rural South, where it's really not OK to be gay.
I also found that Southerners still perceived HIV as a gay man's disease. So, if you're a black woman with HIV, it's because you contracted it from a guy on the down low. Black men, once again, become perpetrators. I'd honestly rather address the root issue of why black men can't be gay in the South.
When it comes to making independent films, especially documentaries, funding always seems to be an obstacle. How did you find financial backing for deepsouth?
MAC AIDS Fund supported the film early on, and I personally financed the rest of the production. And by personally financed, I mean that at the age of 30, I liquidated my IRAs and moved in with my parents for almost two years. Duy Linh Tu and Joe Lindquist also took pay cuts to make this film. The production of deepsouth really became a passion project for everyone involved.
It's opening in July. Where can our readers see it? Is it opening at AIDS 2012?
We will premiere in D.C. during AIDS 2012. We haven't locked down a date, but we'll have public screenings during the week of the international conference. We're also planning a grassroots film tour during the summer/fall.
What do you hope your audience will take away from this film?
We hope that audiences will experience what it's like to be affected by HIV in a region of the U.S. that has few resources, and is not particularly popular, unless we're rallying the African-American vote.
We didn't include the reports and stats and experts in this film. Infinite thanks for them, because that research is the bedrock of this film! But we didn't want to rehash the reports or make people examples of statistical data points, so we created a character-driven, cinema verité narrative. The research findings abound in the film, but they're not super explicit. We also touch on some broader social and cultural issues like religion, education and geography with mini-stories interspersed throughout the film.
We hope to reframe how we think about HIV -- as a social illness. We'd like to expand the definitions of protection and behavior -- beyond condoms and safe sex. It's not a campaign, it's simply the reality of HIV in the American South.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Follow Kellee on Twitter: @kelleent.
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