Walk On

A Walk to Remember
A new documentary by Joseph Kibler & Mark Bashian takes a fresh, candid look at living with HIV/AIDS and disabilities
by Alina Oswald

Joseph Kibler. Photo courtesy Walk On, LLC
Joseph Kibler. Photo courtesy Walk On, LLC

Walk on,/With hope in your heart/And you’ll never walk alone,” the song says. Walk on with Joseph Kibler and you’ll never think of walking in the same way, ever again. His remarkable story challenges our definitions of “ability” and “disability” and, with that, the ability to focus on our own goals, no matter the obstacles.

Twenty-four-year-old Kibler was born HIV-positive. The virus impaired his ability to walk to the extent that he had to use a wheelchair in order to move around. Over time, he learned how to use a walker, and, then, by the age of eighteen, he started walking using a cane. His physical disability forces him to use mostly his upper body in order to move—his walk resembles that of a person with cerebral palsy—and is physically draining. But that did not stop him from registering for AIDS Walk Los Angeles at the age of twenty-one.

In order to have a chance at crossing the finish line, he had to prepare, walking each and every day to build up physical strength. His new documentary, Walk On, follows Kibler as he trains for AIDS Walk LA and talks candidly about living with HIV and physical disabilities, while finding support in a few individuals he met along the way—Jay Cramer, a quadriplegic comic; Katy Sullivan, an amputee sprinter; and Lyvell Gipson, a Purple Heart veteran. The project also attracted actors like Alfred Molina and Regina Hall, and film director Mark Bashian, a 2007 featured finalist for the FOX show On the Lot.

Recently, I caught up with both Kibler and Bashian. During our conference call, I was amazed by the openness with which they talk about the experience of making Walk On, as much as the ease with which they finish each other’s sentences.

Alina Oswald: How did you two meet and how did you end up working together on the documentary?
Joseph Kibler:
I was studying production, and was ready to do my thesis. [Originally] I wanted to shoot a piece [showing the story of] a lot of people that go to the AIDS Walk. The photographer, [who] was actually a classmate of mine, happened to ask teachers if they wanted to help with the editing. Mark found out, and [suggested] that I was the actual story and we should be focusing more on that part. So, [he came] on board and took over as the director. I became more of a producer and the subject.

Mark Bashian: It took three and a half years to put together the documentary. I don’t think there is anything that can tear Joe and I apart at this point, because we’ve been through some of the best and worst times of our lives together in making this film. When you’re doing a documentary and have such a personal subject, it’s emotionally draining on both of our parts. We’re both as happy that we have a film people are responding to, and basically, respect and understand what the film is really trying to say.

What about the other cast members?
When we had our first assembly of the film, it was ninety-five percent HIV and five percent disability, and we knew that it was a little too heavy [on HIV] and [that we needed to add] more on the disability angle. That’s when we started speaking with Lyvell and getting him more involved. Then we got Jay and Katy.

MB: Lyvell Gipson was also a student of mine and a classmate of Joe’s. Jay [Cramer] and Katy [Sullivan] are married, and live half a mile from where I live. I found a video of them doing some public speaking, and then I found that they were local, and [that] Kate was training for the Paralympics.

In Walk On you pair the subject of HIV with that of disability.
It was important to let people know why it was such a big deal, not only because of the HIV but because of my own physical element. The disability is the first thing people see when they look at me. They don’t look at me and say, “Oh, that guy has HIV.” They look at me and say, “Oh, that guy has a disability and obviously he’s struggling in his life”—which, ironically, it’s not the case. Showing other people’s disabilities, we gave [the film] an element that gets people talking a lot more, and eases their way into other subjects…like HIV.

MB: There was a ton of research done on my part and Joe’s part, because we had a huge responsibility to get the information accurate. [In order to determine what HIV/AIDS related information was necessary to address in the film] I sent out mass e-mails and surveys, asking [students to write down] their number-one question in regards to HIV and AIDS or what they think they should know about HIV or AIDS that they don’t know. There are a few HIV organizations that have posted a very standard quiz [on their Web sites], but it’s surprising that they still have to do that.

Mark Bashian. Photo courtesy Walk On, LLC
Mark Bashian. Photo courtesy Walk On, LLC

In Walk On, Joseph, you become an open book in regards to every aspect of your life with HIV and disability—from taking your meds to shopping for the right pair of shoes, even a frank conversation in layman’s terms about everything-you-wanted-to-know-and-were-afraid-to-ask about safer sex with none other than Regina Hall. That’s impressive, and also refreshing.
In the initial meeting, I remember, Mark sat down with me and said: “Are you ready to have no privacy in your life anymore?” And I so naively said, “Yes, sure,” and did not realize the extent to which that would become [true].

In the film you see how very little I hide. Well, most of my life, until I was seventeen, I didn’t talk about it. I didn’t know [I had HIV] until I was eleven. I found out accidentally from a doctor who told me I had to keep it a secret because, in the nineties, people were being kicked out of school if they had HIV.

It’s such a quaint point to tell people I’m HIV-positive now that it’s my way of weeding out the people that don’t understand or can’t or refuse to [understand.] It became, I think, the best mechanism in my life to surround myself with friendly people.

So, honestly, the film helped give me the confidence to be the person I wanted to be. I had the role of being a producer of something that I was also in. For me, it was very therapeutic, and it was very scary.

Why scary?
The interview with that guy, Joe, who was talking about [wanting] to get [infected]. Here’s a person who knew very well what they were going to do, and what the ramifications of that were going to be. I was definitely upset, because I felt anger because I didn’t have that choice.…Because I would do anything to get free of it and I can’t do that, and I accepted it.

What’s your advice, Joseph, on disclosing one’s HIV serostatus?
The one thing that’s different with my situation is that I was born into this. And so when we were talking [in the documentary] about getting tested, there was no anticipation for the results.

I think that when you sense it and you are in a comfortable environment, that’s a good time to come out. [Disclosing] is a personal thing, but it’s something that you eventually have to come to terms with. I think that the more confidence you bring to it and the more education you allow yourself to [not] withhold, the more you talk about [and] saturate people around you with information, the less scary it becomes. It loses that fear…in a good way.

How do people respond to you when you approach them?
Every person is different. The best thing that I got [from the film] is that people shared important moments from their lives with me. It shows you that if you open up to people, people open up to you. And the reason I wanted to do [the documentary] and show myself is because young people hear [about HIV/AIDS] either in a book with statistics or as something that happened in the eighties, and don’t connect to it because this is not going on now. I’m also very young still. [HIV] just happened to me, someone who could have been their friend in high school.

Joseph takes a training break at Runyon Canyon. Photo courtesy Walk On, LLC
Joseph takes a training break at Runyon Canyon. Photo courtesy Walk On, LLC

You are a young person, only twenty-four years-old. Many young people often believe that they are invincible…that things like HIV/AIDS don’t happen to them. How can we break through to them, other than with films like Walk On?
It really is [about] having an open, honest discussion, and allowing them to see what I see happen living with disability and HIV. [Also,] I think we don’t give teens enough credit; the society has a stigma and a stereotype for teens just as for everything else. We help create and feed that ignorance by not allowing them that information because we think they are not mature enough; hence, we’re creating immature people.

I mean, when I was younger and my mom was talking to me about sex, we were having an open and realistic conversation, because, if you don’t, you’re just allowing trouble to occur. It makes you [feel]awkward, uncomfortable, [but] to have that conversation is much more important than to avoid awkwardness. And as a society, we’d like to avoid that awkwardness.

What are your thoughts on a possible AIDS-free generation?
It’s something that I hope I’m around for, but I think the conversation should always be there. We have a duty to continue with the education, in general, beyond HIV.

MB: I think that if you are mature enough to take your clothes off with multiple people, if you are mature enough to stick a needle in your arm, you should be mature enough to know you should be educated enough about this before you do it. If that means watching our film, reading a book, doing some research, then I think that people should take that level of responsibility beforehand. To reach that AIDS-free generation, those types of education need to be implemented in such a way that we’re not worried about how it’s going to come across. The message has to be clear, across the board.

Before hanging up, I have to inquire about New Year’s resolutions. Joseph Kibler hopes Walk On will open doors for all disabilities and HIV demographics. His personal goal for 2014 is to do a tour of AIDS Walk events.

Find out more about the Walk On documentary by visiting www.walkondocumentary.com; on Facebook, at www.facebook.com/WalkOnDoc; or on Twitter @WalkOnDoc. Also, find out more about Joseph Kibler at www.josephkibler.com, and about Mark Bashian, at www.bashfilms.com.

Alina Oswald is a writer, photographer, and the author of Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS. Contact her at www.alinaoswald.com.