A New Documentary, deepsouth, from Filmmaker Lisa Biagiotti Amplifies the Voices of AIDS in the South
by V. Anderson
Oddly, journalist and filmmaker Lisa Biagiotti’s Caribbean background—Jamaican of Chinese descent—led her to a documentary on HIV/AIDS in America’s rural South. She was writing about HIV and homophobia in Jamaica and noticed “a lot of similarities between the South and Jamaica in terms of their religious and cultural traditions and the legacy of slavery….When I’m in the South, it does feel very Jamaican.”
Biagiotti explains her desire to make a film about HIV/AIDS concisely: “I like stories that surprise me.” However, there is much more to the deepsouth than that. Biagiotti and her team have crafted a documentary that does not involve many formal statistics, has no explicit call to action, and doesn’t even present a solution. Instead, it draws the viewer into the very personal experiences of Josh, a gay Black man living with HIV in the Mississippi Delta; Monica and Tammy, two women who are tirelessly dedicated, even when their grant money gets cut, to conducting the annual HEROES Community Development Center Retreat in Louisiana, open to those living with HIV/AIDS; and Kathie, the relentless CEO of AIDS Alabama, who spends her days and nights on the road from conference to conference, so that she can be a voice for people living with HIV/AIDS in the South.
An unconventional approach to the issue calls for unconventional storytelling. Cinematography that is simultaneously insightful and beautiful guides the viewer along. The editing unsentimentally allows ideas to emerge from the juxtaposition of scenes and images. Biagiotti describes the importance of building a story around not only people, but locations: “Everything about the Delta is tragically beautiful, from these run-down juke joints to abandoned school buses at the side of the road, flipped over, just really poetic. And this area has suffered a lot….So, we also wanted the South and the landscape to be part of the story.” At times, locations are used as visual manifestations of human turmoil. Josh talks about his attempted suicide while walking through a cemetery. Biagiotti explains that he needed to be alone on camera at times “to show his isolation.” Shot in the rattled interior of a burnt-down house, “the scene where he’s talking about his molestation was particularly artistic, because we were trying to figure out how to show the damage in his head.”
To Biagiotti, “Josh represents kind of a pattern that I found, and research backs up, where these gay Black men suffer some kind of childhood trauma, then they are kind of confused about their sexuality, they are infected with HIV, they attempt suicide, and they live a life of isolation.” As a result, she wasn’t sure if she would end up making a film or writing a magazine article: “I interviewed many gay Black men who just were too afraid to go on camera.” After driving 13,000 miles and interviewing about 400 people, she found Josh. “I started talking to him and he’s so profound and brilliant, and I thought he was perfect.” Biagiotti’s unique perspective makes these specific stories universal: “Maybe it’s because of my Caribbean background, but I don’t see the differences, I see more commonalities….I think you can relate to Josh if you’ve ever felt alone, or kind of lost, or didn’t know what to do with your life.”
The universality of the film does not stop with Josh. The year before filming, Biagiotti attended and participated in the HEROES retreat, and Tammy and Monica asked her what she thought. “I said ‘I think this is really beneficial—to me! [laughs]. I think this is really helpful, just about self-worth, and confidence, what are my goals, what do I want to do this year, and those are things that everybody should be asking themselves and have nothing to do with HIV.’”
deepsouth does not idealize or make a hero out of anyone. Often-omitted scenes are included: Kathie gets frustrated, Josh has a few drinks at a BBQ, Monica admits she’s not easy to deal with at times. All of these things make the film balanced and real and people in it accessible and likeable. Biagiotti explains, “The film needed to be something else, so that you could forget almost that it was about the HIV that you’ve known for the last thirty years… so that you could understand that this is what it’s like in the South….There are all these social factors and contextual factors at play.”
The film lends insight to a variety of these factors. It visits the hilariously awkward high school class, where the teacher can’t discuss condoms or contraceptives while attempting to teach a lesson on sexual education, because Mississippi law mandates abstinence-based sexual education. “It’s like this dance around these words,” says Biagiotti, “because they can’t actually talk about the reality…so that’s certainly a barrier to education, and you can’t talk about sexuality; you could never talk about being gay. I’ve had gay men in the South say to me, ‘Well, I knew I wasn’t going to get pregnant.’”
The creation of “gay families,” distinct from but at times inclusive of biological families, presents a solution. Biagiotti explains this idea: “Gay families are informal support structures for the gay community. They are based on relationships, not programs. Sometimes it’s as simple as Sunday dinners and BBQs. They call each other ‘dad’ and ‘son’ and check up on each other.”
Among the only statistical content of the film is an animated map of the South that illustrates a direct correlation over time between slavery, poverty, and HIV/AIDS, proposed by Dr. Bronwen Lichtenstein from the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. According to Biagiotti, this animated continuum “challenges how we even think about behavior and protection” and supports the idea that HIV/AIDS in the South is “a social illness.” Josh’s frustration at the discrepancy between his reality and his goals is reflected in his insight: “I tried so many times to finish my education. Everything still fell apart. When I’m home, there’s a clone, somebody that wants to be me.”
The last shot of the film shows Kathie in her hotel room, looking worn down and running on automatic. But the key is, she’s not giving up. Biagiotti wanted to show Kathie in her context, “because everyone, at some time in our lives, feels that way, like they’re up against the system, things are not working, that we just need to keep going….There is this feeling of a lot of energy being used and wasted, but if they don’t do it, no one will.”
For Biagiotti, the silent South must be heard. deepsouth gives spirit to the often unseen courage of this American struggle.
deepsouth will premiere July 24–25 in Washington, D.C., during AIDS 2012, with three showings at Landmark E Street Cinemas. For more information, visit: http://deepsouthfilm.com.
V. Anderson holds an MFA in Film from New York University. She has worked in India, the Caribbean, and the U.S., and is currently based in New York City.