Filmmaker Lisa Biagiotti came to the project that became deepsouth out of curiosity and disbelief that the statistics she'd read about HIV in the U.S. South were really true. But those numbers have now become people to her. It's an important and often overlooked story. So Biagiotti, who served as deepsouth's producer and director, has big plans for World AIDS Day this year.
She is offering to show the film at 100 screenings all over the country at the same time, followed by a Q&A streamed live with the cast members. She hopes the screenings will help people put faces and stories to the epidemic in the Southern U.S. and spur people to take action -- and she's launched a fundraising campaign to see the project through. Biagiotti explains on Kickstarter:
Earlier this month, we lost our main sponsor, who would have financed the film's release, along with our ambitious goal of 100 screenings for World AIDS Day. This put us in a difficult place because our release and tour plans were already set in motion. So we're asking for your help to get the film out there -- to encode for iTunes and Amazon, to master the DVD with special features, and to live stream Q&As with cast/crew on December 1, 2014.
Biagiotti continues to work with those featured in the film. She's proud of Josh's "success story" of getting out of the South and pursuing a graduate degree; she's horrified that Monica is on the verge of becoming homeless and closing her agency but admires her ability to "make things work as always"; she checks the caller ID on another phone to see that it's Kathie and wonders what's up.
But there's also a weariness in her voice as she talks about the film and the people she now has in her life because of deepsouth. Screening the movie all over the South has given her an opportunity to see what's happening at the community level and she's often frustrated.
"These people are invisible in a lot of ways. They're not marching on their state capitols and they're not going to Washington and this disease is still very feared and stigmatized. People have done without for so long that they're used to not having care; they're used to not counting -- it's hard to motivate around that."
The documentary premiered at the 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., and has been screened over 70 times -- 45 of which have been at the invitation of communities in the South. It illuminates the HIV crisis in the region, where poverty, ignorance, homophobia and discrimination meet a lack of resources and low access to health care to contribute to the highest HIV infection rates in the nation. It follows the lives of several people living with and advocating for those who live with HIV and the particular challenges they face, especially in the rural South.
Although there's no hard data on the film's effects, Biagiotti has borne witness to the deep impression the film has made in the HIV community in the South.
"I've seen the impact on the ground and in communities and a lot of it is said online," she explains. "But I don't think it's something you can glean from 1,500 Facebook followers. Even though these are forgotten places, these are not disinterested populations at all -- they just don't have any of the support."
"I think the hardest part of this is being able to let it go when I know there's an impact that's actually possible and there's so much to do that's not being done. I've basically created an impact campaign that remains unfunded. The Feds can't get it, no one seems to be able to navigate their own system to make any kind of impact work. How much worse does it have to get?"
Biagiotti even took that idea to the White House, asking a panel of policymakers if it had any approaches that are "grassroots, tribal or indigenous."
"I mystified the regional panel," she says somewhat incredulously. "Basically, I was asking if they had any point people on the ground in the most desperate areas -- that's what you need."
Biagiotti invites people around the country to step up by hosting a World AIDS Day screening of deepsouth, or by giving as little as a dollar to the fundraising campaign. While other projects call to her, she still recalls what Josh from deepsouth said about the need to persevere: "Whatever's wrong, you have to go back and fix it."
[Editor's note 11/18: Since the initial publication of this article, Biagiotti's plan to offer 100 screenings of her movie met with a funding setback. We have corrected the text to reflect that and include information about her fundraising campaign to make up for the deficit.]
Sue Saltmarsh has worked in the HIV/AIDS field for over 20 years, the first 10 as an herbalist and energy therapist at Project Vida, the last six as a writer and copy editor for Positively Aware magazine. She is now a freelance writer and editor and is also able to devote more time to her passion as founder and director of the Drive for Universal Healthcare (DUH).