A Moving Migration
A powerful documentary features the stories of thirteen men, living with HIV, growing old & starting over in the California desert
by Chip Alfred
With its warm weather and spectacular scenery, Palm Springs has been a mecca for Hollywood stars and snowbird retirees for years. Over the last few decades, it’s become a magnet for mature HIV-positive gays looking for a fresh start. Desert Migration, a new documentary film, presents a poignant, brutally honest glimpse into the lives of these long-term survivors who saw their friends dying all around them and lived longer than they ever imagined. Now they’re seeking refuge, searching for new connections, and hoping for second chances in an oasis in the desert.
“We wanted to make a film that is much more focused on emotion than information,” says producer Marc Smolowitz, forty-six. In this visually stunning, unconventional documentary, there are no talking heads and no expert commentaries. The stories are told with day-in-the-life scenarios of each man accompanied by his own voiceover narrative. “With this ensemble of men, you get such a diverse panorama of perspectives and experience and nuances of aging in these interwoven stories.” Like Doc, a pierced, tattooed, polyamorous man who left a high-profile career in Los Angeles. “At the point that my health got to the juncture that I could no longer keep up with an…incredibly demanding job, I decided to change my life so I wouldn’t die,” Doc says. So he relocated to Palm Springs, as did Bill, a muscle daddy type with a healthy dose of optimism, who shares, “I don’t think of HIV as a flaw anymore. Many of my friends have it. All of us have a very different set of experiences, but we’re able to talk about it with each other. That’s an important thing. Without my friends, it would be really intolerable.”
Writer/director Daniel Cardone, forty-two, points out that although the film focuses on a small subset of gay men living with HIV, there are some universal themes. “When life keeps kicking you, what makes you want to get back up and carry on? You really have to find that thing or those things that bring you joy and don’t let anyone else take it away from you.” The movie doesn’t tread lightly when it comes to tackling some tough subjects including death, depression, and addiction. The men are very candid about their physical and mental health challenges, and admit they sometimes can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. “I always feel a sense of invisibility here,” says Steven, the only black man in the group. “It’s much easier to have sex than it is to develop a friendship. As you get older, you wonder: Is there going to be companionship? Is there going to be somebody there? Is this something I’m going to have to go through alone?”
Some of the guys came to Palm Springs preparing for the end, but they found new beginnings instead. “I wanted to die in a place I really loved,” says Joel, a gentle soul who finds solace in the company of his pets. “I knew there was a chance I might live, but I really didn’t know which way it was going to go. When I got off the plane here…it felt so wonderful.” Cardone, who has been living with HIV for two decades, explains. “This wasn’t about telling a story about HIV and AIDS. It was telling a story about finding purpose in life and using this group of people who thought they were going to die and sort of got their lives back.” Bill asserts, “The ones that aren’t thriving are the ones that can’t seem to find meaning in life. There’s meaning all over the place. You just have to go get it.” A few of the men feel HIV has changed them for the better. “Being positive has brought so much to my life that I never thought would be here,” declares Doug, a fit, handsome, former professional dancer. “I have so many compassionate friends and family members that are nurturing in so many ways…that I could never imagine. I don’t know if my life would have such richness if I wasn’t positive.”
Smolowitz, also a long-term survivor, says he wanted to make a film that would be a part of the national conversation about HIV and aging. He contends that these men represent the first truly out aging cohort of gay men in modern America. Steve, one half of an HIV-positive couple, explains, “We’ve lost an entire generation of men who would have been ten or fifteen years older. My generation is grasping at straws as to what the values are and what life is going to be like as we get older because it’s not a known entity.” Keith, a former well-to-do HIV activist and philanthropist, agrees. “There haven’t been a lot of role models. What do gay men do in their fifties, sixties, seventies?”
Cardone, who migrated from Australia and settled in Palm Springs with his husband, says the resort community has an energy all its own. “Where cities are like streams, Palm Springs is like a lake. You have to find something to propel you through the lake. You’re forced to look into yourself and create your own reality, your own new direction.” Migration marks the second cinematic collaboration for Cardone and Smolowitz, who worked together on Still Around, an award-winning short film compilation marking the thirtieth anniversary of AIDS in 2011. Both films are projects of The HIV Story Project, a San Francisco-based non-profit focused on bridging HIV/AIDS with film, media and storytelling. Smolowitz, who serves as the organization’s executive director, is pleased to see the reaction this film is receiving. After a packed world premiere at Frameline39, the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival at the storied Castro Theater, the documentary is doing exactly what the filmmakers intended it to do—sparking a dialogue. “It’s designed to stimulate conversation and thought and feeling,” says Cardone. “It’s a wonderful thing to make a movie that matters to people,” Smolowitz adds. “This is a film that will be filling a space in the story landscape.”
Next up for Migration is a series of screenings at queer film festivals across the country. Smolowitz hopes the film will also reach a broader audience. “I want every HIV organization to have screening events, own a copy of the film and use it in their work.” Smolowitz and The HIV Story Project are looking ahead to the fortieth anniversary of HIV/AIDS and exploring how the narrative has changed. “There are lots and lots of stories that haven’t been told. I’m a filmmaker and a storyteller and I’m going to keep on doing this until this thing is over.”
For more information about Desert Migration, please visit desertmigrationmovie.com.
Chip Alfred is A&U’s Editor at Large based in Philadelphia.