HIV in the American South: Q&A with ‘deepsouth’ documentary filmmaker Lisa Biagiotti
The Darkroom interviews documentary filmmaker Lisa Biagiotti about “deepsouth,” a new documentary about HIV in the South premiering this week in Washington D.C. The premiere coincides with the week-long International AIDS Conference.
“deepsouth” is a poetic and grounding exploration into the lives of those affected by HIV in the American South. After 30 years, the global epidemic has overshadowed the fight at home, where HIV has never looked like this before. Facing a broken health system and a culture of denial, Southerners must create their own solutions to survive.
YOU SAY THE GLOBAL EPIDEMIC HAS OVERSHADOWED THE FIGHT AT HOME, HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE CURRENT STATE OF HIV IN THE U.S. TODAY, AND PARTICULARLY IN THE SOUTH?
I have seen more press about HIV in the South in the last week than I have in the last three years. HIV is a tired topic, an unglamorous cause and in our backyard. The most common response I receive when I tell people I’m working on a documentary about HIV in the South is: “The Deep South of the United States?”
We’d like to believe we’ve conquered HIV in this country. The scientific progress has been absolutely exciting. Before there was Occupy Wall Street, there was the exultant Act Up. The AIDS movement is historic and unprecedented, and we should never forget that. But that is history, and the legacy of AIDS activism did not extend to some parts of this country. The rural South has an alternative reality and a legacy of its own: the imprint of slavery, the clash of Civil Rights and the brunt of poverty. I dare say it is one of the last surviving cultures in this country. It is beautiful and tragic and everything in between.
Today, HIV increasingly affects marginalized communities in the South where there is little activism, feeble social infrastructure and a web of complicated issues that we can’t test and treat our way out of.
The epidemic in the South is not actually new, although the media frames it this way. The statistics have been sobering, the reports have been readily available, infection rates have been trending — and for a long time. But there hasn’t been the momentum or rally cries around the Southern epidemic until recently.
WHAT LED YOU TO MAKE THIS DOCUMENTARY?
In 2009, I came across some startling statistics on the South while working on some stories on HIV and homophobia in Jamaica. I noticed a lot of contextual similarities between Jamaica and the Deep South in terms of the legacy of slavery, religious traditions and a strong sense of community and cultural ties.
When I went on my first road trip through the South in June 2010, I was so confused. I was armed with the data (50 percent higher infection rates in the South, the most AIDS deaths, AIDS as one of the leading causes of death among African American women…), but it didn’t prepare me for what I experienced. The more I drove and the more people I spoke to, the more I realized that HIV was not really about HIV.
Part of the problem has been the amazing success of the first movement. I would never want to diminish it because it is exemplary and triumphant in so many ways, but it has prevented us from seeing the reality of the domestic epidemic, especially in quiet, rural places in the South, where people are marginalized, disenfranchised and no longer vocal. HIV became my GPS into the fragile areas of our country with broken systems, patchwork solutions and a sense of resignation and making-do.
In a sense, it’s a little ironic because these are the same streets Civil Rights activism was forged and won. But perhaps, it’s easier to fight for freedom than it is the taboo topics of sex, sexuality and behavior that shake the bedrock of Southern culture.
WHY THE TITLE “deepsouth?”
We chose the title “deepsouth” — one word, all lowercase — to represent this geographical, cultural term, but in a different way. The diminutive capitalization and allusion of the two words represent a more familiar and intimate treatment of the epic Deep South of Civil War regalia and Civil Rights brigades. The film is about the Deep South — the environmental hazards of a region and the contextual factors that continue to drive social inequity and spread the disease.
WHAT KINDS OF MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT PEOPLE LIVING WITH HIV DID YOU ENCOUNTER WHILE REPORTING IN THE SOUTH?
I found the same misconceptions I find in an urban setting: “It’s a white gay man’s disease; it infects drug users and sex workers; black men on the down low infect black women. We behave, they don’t. We use protection, they don’t. Tsk, tsk, tsk… you brought it upon yourself.”
“deepsouth” is not about black people with AIDS. That concept is seductive, “them, not us,” but it is not what’s happening. “deepsouth” is not about the “new face” of HIV/AIDS — these faces have been there, tallied in the statistics, but we have not recognized them in the latest awareness campaigns and/or anecdotal newspaper leads.
The reality is that HIV is less about safe sex and more about safety nets. HIV is symptomatic of so many other social ills. Silence, stigma and judgment create layers of secrecy. They can’t be “fixed” without a deep dive into the underlying reasons behind why people are quiet, what they’re ashamed of and why they’re afraid.
We start our stories about HIV at starting points that are too late. It’s not about the time you didn’t have a condom. It’s about how we define protection. It’s not only about black women getting infected by black men. It’s why black men in the South can’t be gay or bisexual.
YOU FOLLOW THREE MAIN STORIES IN THE DOCUMENTARY. WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THESE CHARACTERS; WHAT’S THEIR ROLE IN UNDERSTANDING THE BIG PICTURE?
In the last two and a half years, I’ve driven 13,000 miles and conducted 400 interviews. There is a lot that is not in the documentary, but we found recurring themes: inertia, isolation and Do-It-Yourself everything.
We thought the best way to address these themes was through a few narratives that exemplified them. I hate to use labels, but I did seek out “a young, gay, black man living with HIV in a rural area” to show the isolation of his home life and the supportive gay family he had two hours away in the city. Again, most people don’t want to talk about why black men can’t be gay in the South.
The second storyline deals with a small, rural AIDS agency whose shrinking funds prompts the community to pitch in and help out with their annual HIV retreat. Two best friends do everything themselves in order to create a space where people living with HIV can connect and share their stories.
The third storyline gets us around the South and out of it to the politics of the disease and the bureaucracy that houses it. An Alabama activist spends 120 days on the road fighting for equitable funding and policy changes. She too is isolated and doing it herself and really going in circles for incremental progress.
CAN YOU ALSO DISCUSS SOME OF THE THEMES OF THE MINI-STORIES YOU INCLUDE IN THE FILM?
There are four mini-stories in the film: an animated map that correlates slavery to poverty to HIV, the sermon of a Baptist pastor, the long drive of a rural social worker and the sex education lesson of a health teacher.
Because HIV is not siloed to the medical realm, we wanted to connect it to some of the contextual and cultural factors at play across the South: the role of the Church, the barriers of the land/geography and the unspoken lessons of a sex ed classes.
WHAT OBSTACLES DID YOU FACE WHILE FILMING “deepsouth?”
I reported for more than a year before we turned the camera on our subjects. And there were several other ways we thought of telling the story: the building of a clinic, a social worker and her clients, etc., but none of them felt right or encompassing enough.
The issue is so complex, multi-layered and sensitive. It did take some convincing for Josh to be on camera. I’m sure Kathie wondered why we were following her into the bathroom. Monica and Tammy trusted us that we would conceal the identities of any retreat guest who did not want to be on camera.
We knew we wanted the style to be motivated cinéma vérité, which also makes it more difficult because the stories need to arise in scene. There are no expert interviews, no overly emphasized statistics and no calls-to-action. Because the statistics are hyperbolic enough, we really had the opportunity to make a subtle, layered film.
CAN YOU TAKE ABOUT YOUR TEAM? HOW LONG DID IT TAKE TO FILM AND EDIT THE DOCUMENTARY?
There’s a reason this is not “A film by Lisa Biagiotti” and that’s because it would be a different film if it weren’t for Director of Photography Duy Linh Tu and Editor Joe Lindquist. I call us the Triumvirate and our trio goes by “Royal Red Studios,” named for the most amazing (fried) shrimp we ate together in Mobile, Alabama.
For me, filmmaking is a collaborative experience. I had a vision for what I wanted with the film, but was insistent that they both bring their talents and expertise to make it bigger than I could imagine. I met Duy at Columbia’s J-school, where he runs the digital media program. After I graduated, we remained in contact and I kept telling him about this idea I had about a story on HIV in the Deep South. He actually told me to go on my first road trip, and 4,000 miles in, he joined the project because he believed in the story. The visual aesthetic is his genius. We shot it on DSLRs, which allowed for a real intimacy in the field.
I met Joe on Twitter, even though he wasn’t on Twitter at the time. While Duy and I were shooting in Louisiana last August, we decided we needed to hire an editor. I told him about “Bombay Beach,” an art house film about life around the Salton Sea in California. I tweeted that we were looking for an experimental, unconventional editor in the style of “BombayBeach,” “Tree of Life” and “Y Tu Mama Tambien.” The director of Bombay Beach sent me a Facebook message that I should contact her editor: Joe Lindquist.
Duy and I were so immersed in “deepsouth” at the point Joe came in, so we welcomed a fresh perspective. Joe knew very little about HIV/AIDS, but he knew a lot about good storytelling.
WAS SECURING FUNDING A PROBLEM?
About 4,000 miles in, I received a grant from the MAC AIDS Fund, which allowed me to continue reporting and pay the people I worked with, albeit a modest amount. I then liquidated my IRAs and streamlined my expenses by moving in with my parents for two years in order to finish production. But now we have a film!
ON YOUR SITE, YOU’VE TALKED ABOUT THE PROCESS: “HOW DO WE VISUALLY DOCUMENT AN INVISIBLE STORY? HOW DO WE EFFECTIVELY TELL A STORY NO ONE WANTS TO TALK ABOUT?” DO YOU FEEL YOU WERE IN SUCCESSFUL IN ACCOMPLISHING THESE TASKS AT HAND? WHAT WAS YOUR THOUGHT PROCESS IN VISUALLY SUCH A COMPLEX TOPIC?
I do. And that’s a direct result of the people we follow in “deepsouth.” We were not exactly filming the most exciting scenes: Josh wandering around the Delta, Kathie walking down Hallways, Monica and Tammy packing up cars. Nothing actually happens in the film. But I think you forget it’s about HIV and you can relate to what it’s like to feel alone, or up against the system or that you have to do everything yourself. And those universal human experiences translate across time and place.
Our goal was to show what the experience of living with HIV was like in the rural South. We wanted to document reality and chronicle experience because it was what seemed to be missing from the sea of statistics, data and reports. The human stories were always filtered through a statistic or data point, and we found it to be objectifying and reductive.
HOW HAVE THE LIVES CHANGED OF THE MAIN CHARACTERS IN THE FILM SINCE YOU WRAPPED PRODUCTION?
Josh is now at Jackson State University pursuing a degree in social work. Monica and Tammy are trying to keep their lights, but still providing bi-monthly support group meetings. Kathie is still traveling, and last month she presented at some Congressional briefings on HIV in the South. They will all be in DC for the “deepsouth” premiere during the International AIDS Conference.
WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE VIEWERS TO TAKE AWAY FROM THE DOCUMENTARY?
We think we know the story of HIV/AIDS, but we really only know the history of HIV. Prof. Stephen Inrig of the University of Texas Southwestern describes the abnormal history of the epidemic, in that we’re in the middle (not the end) of it. He references the histories of the Cold War told during the actual war. He says that our current response is based on a past epidemic that has happened in another part of the country. I’m interested to understand how the National HIV/AIDS Strategy with a focus on 12 cities will translate to rural areas of this country.
I’ve also seen a lot of press about HIV in the South in the last few weeks, and I’m glad for the attention, I believe, however, that most of the coverage misses the entire picture. Stories are told through silos of race or poverty or data or science. It is the integration of all those silos where the complete story emerges. That’s a messy task.
My friend and colleague Susan Wolfson describes AIDS in 2012 with four P’s: paradox, progress, promise, paralysis. Simply put, we are 30+ years into this epidemic and we’re still in crisis mode. Are we able to end (to slow) the epidemic with our current toolkit?
We have our news templates, our new faces, the cycle of ethnic AIDS days, annual walks, so it’s very difficult to tell an HIV story that runs counter to the norm. But I do hope “deepsouth” documents the experience of what it’s like to be affected by HIV.