Unlike the rest of the nation, the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the South has not been controlled and conquered. Instead, it’s rampant and largely invisible. Deaths from HIV/AIDS are 50 percent higher than in the rest of the country. The South also has the highest rate of incarceration, the highest number of uninsured people, the highest rate of STD infection, the highest rate of poverty — and the list goes on. Those Southerners who are HIV positive are still mired in many of the same problems that patients faced during the early years of the disease, from discrimination to lack of access to care.
It’s this stark contradiction between the popular narrative of HIV/AIDS and the reality that so many patients face that drew filmmaker Lisa Biagiotti into exploring the topic, “unlearning,” as she says, everything she knew about the disease. Over the course of two and a half years, she drove more than 13,000 miles across the South and interviewed 400 people including advocates, activists, preachers, health workers, and HIV positive individuals. Of that group, she settled on three subjects for her film, deepsouth: Josh, a gay Mississippi college student who’s been HIV positive for six years, and makes regular visits to his “gay family”; Tamela King and Monica Johnson, two activists who organize a retreat for HIV positive people each year in Louisiana; and Kathie Hiers, the director of AIDS Alabama who spends 120 days a year traveling to conferences and to Washington, D.C. trying to secure funding for AIDS research and prevention in her state.
We chatted with Biagiotti about deepsouth and how making the film has affected her own view of the South, HIV/AIDS, and the social issues that have contributed to the disease’s continued rise.
City Paper: In one of the opening shots of the film, Kathie Hiers is talking to an audience and listing off all of the things that the South does or does not have [poverty, low access to healthcare, etc.]. It really hits you hard. Why did you decide to begin with that in particular?
Lisa Biagiotti: Well, even before the beginning of the film, everything about this issue is almost turned kind of upside down. You don’t really know what’s going on. Even the title, deepsouth, one word, all lowercase, was intentional. So starting from the title to the opening sequence, we felt we had to plunge you into the issue. The hardest part of a film is the first five minutes, so you have that rapid fire, here are all the stats, and then you are plunged further into Josh’s personal story and childhood trauma. And then there’s the map [which shows the correlation between slavery, poverty, and rates of HIV/AIDS infection]. So those three pairings … really kind of set the stage of what you will experience the rest of the film. Which is much more hopeful and just kind of about life thereafter.
CP: It’s such a stylish film. Did you spend a lot of time working on the aesthetics?
LB: Yes, I think so. Duy Linh Tu is the director of photography, and he decided on what the visual aesthetic was going to be. Because the subject matter was often really intimate, we sometimes just used one camera, and so that was also intentional. It’s not like this crew following these subjects around — it’s more one person or the two of us with them. I really had known the subjects, almost all of them, for a year before we started filming. I really had a good sense of their lives, and we actually shot the film in only about three weeks. Five days with each subject. I mean, we made trips down and stories fell through, or sometimes we were a little premature in shooting. I have the South in every single season, which you’ll see in a lot of the landscape shots, but the actual stories themselves were just about a three-week shoot over the summer of 2011. And all of that is just — I think just aesthetically, the South is beautiful, and to capture that beauty and that fragility and starkness at times, I think was really important because I believe the South itself is a character in the film.
CP: How did you find your subjects initially?
LB: Well, I interviewed about 400 people, and what I was hearing from east South Carolina to west Louisiana was the same. These were people who didn’t know each other telling me very similar stories. So a lot of things started to trend across the South — stigma, discrimination, access to care, transportation, education, religion, it was all about Southern culture, Southern life. deepsouth, I think, represents that same kind of Southernness, just in a different way. Just like the tree is flipped upside down [in the film poster], the gay family in the film is a refreshed take on Southern families and food and community and support, which are very Southern things, but in a way that you don’t expect them to be Southern.
CP: As you said, a lot of this subject matter is very intimate. As a filmmaker, how do you help people to become comfortable with you and your camera so that they’ll share these difficult details of their lives with you?
LB: I approached it as a journalist, and I was trying to connect things that weren’t readily connected. So when you look at the statistics and no matter what statistic it is, AIDS being the leading cause of death among African-American women, young gay black bisexual men have one of the highest rates of infection, or just higher rates of infection across the South — I didn’t want my subjects to be just the human versions of those statistics. I was trying to find meaning in those statistics. So what does it mean when gay or bisexual young black men have the highest rates of HIV infection — that’s not really the story. The story is why can’t these men be themselves at home? Why do they have to go elsewhere and find other support so they can be fully themselves? That’s what the film explores.
CP: This film is about a lot more than HIV. It touches on many of the surrounding issues that are allowing HIV/AIDS to continue to run rampant in the region. How did you disentangle all those complex problems to make a film that still focuses on the disease, yet isn’t restricted by that focus?
LB: I think the rural South is connected to the global South, and there is something about the systems that are breaking down. There is something about this crumbling social infrastructure. I often say you can take out the HIV from the film — the HIV is like a setting, almost. You take out the HIV and plug in incarceration rates, or plug in education and run the numbers. And what you’re going to find honestly is that this is a region in crisis. That’s hard to say, especially as someone from the North, but it’s the future. Because this is what happens when systems start to unravel, when social infrastructure begins to break down, and HIV is really just an indicator of a fragile society. I think it’s much beyond HIV, and we’re in a period when the disease is being remedicalized, meaning the epidemic’s 30 years old, we know how to treat it, we know what causes it, so the approach is much more medical. And that goes against every good sustainable practice, which is basically you have to make sure that poverty is taken care of first.
CP: What has going through this process of making the film been like for you?
LB: In the last year we’ve screened about 45 times, 30 of them in the South, and at the invitation of communities and organizations and colleges. We were on the LGBT film festival circuit, so we’re doing that. And yes, initially it was exhausting and I finished it and it was done. But the second life of deepsouth is part community engagement and the communities have honestly surprised me so much. I never thought I’d be on tour with this film for a year and a half. I never thought I would be — like today, I’m lecturing in three classrooms at an agricultural college in Georgia and screening the film tonight. It’s opening up conversations across the South on extremely difficult topics, taboo topics that they don’t even want to talk about. Yet it’s something about the film and the subjects that makes it accessible and starts these conversations, and that’s been reenergizing for me.
CP: That must be very encouraging, to see people accepting and thinking about the film so readily.
LB: And yet there are still challenges. I look at even the subjects’ lives, like Monica, who’s going to be at the screening in Charleston. You could run every issue in the history of HIV/AIDS through Monica Johnson — she’s been positive for almost the longevity of the epidemic, and lost her son, and started her own agency and that’s failing, and she can barely keep it together. She falls in and out of care, even though she navigates the system for other people all the time, and she can’t even stay in care sometimes. I’ll talk to her and she has, like, 14 days of medication left. So the systems are shifting. This is a disease of poverty. Nothing about it is really efficient. We would rather believe that it’s over, and after 30 years that we’re successful, right? That’s what all of the other documentaries are showing, and part of that is true, we’ve come so far, but we’ve only really told one story. And the dominant story is the story of these guys in the cities who really fought and got treatment for thousands and thousands of people. That’s a great, great story, but it’s not the only one. I think that deepsouth really tries to highlight the issues of the rural South, and this epidemic that largely still no one knows about. And it’s not new.