About 10 months ago, I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a trailer for Lisa Biagiotti's documentary deepsouth, a film that takes a look at the largely undocumented and unsung havoc that the HIV epidemic has wraught in countless beleagured and impoverished communities in the US South, specifically the states of Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. The trailer was a little over two minutes in length, but it only took about 30 seconds for me to know that this was a film that I had to see and one I had to champion.
Since then, the film has been touring all across the country, winning awards at festivals and being featured in major news outlets like The Baltimore Sun & The Los Angeles Times to HIV media giants like Poz Magazine and The Body. I was fortunate enough to see the film at its premiere during The International AIDS Conference in Washington DC this July (and two more times at screenings in Baltimore) and wrote this review aftewards.
This film is vitally important not just for the message it brings regarding the treble epidemics of HIV, Poverty and Homophobia in the deep south, but for the way that message is told. The film will be at The Crossroads Film Festival in Jackson, Mississippi + Fringe! Film Festival in London next month, followed by a 5-stop tour of Alabama in May and it is my fervent hope that anyone within a 250 mile radius to any of these showings can come down and experience this film.
deepsouth: a film review
Some things you must always be unable to bear. Some things you must never stop refusing to bear. Injustice and outrage and dishonor and shame. No matter how young you are or how old you have got. Not for kudos and not for cash: your picture in the paper nor money in the back either. Just refuse to bear them. – William Faulkner
Not just any old thing has the ability to be haunting. For something to haunt you it has to have a thick, rib-sticking power that doesn’t fully hit you until you try to stop thinking about it, but can’t. When it comes to art, haunting happens when despair is made beautiful. It is the feeling we have when we see tragedy done right, without the trappings of over-sentimentality or embellishment. These are the things that resonate with us.
Most sounds dampen quickly upon their entry into the world. They hit a wall or fade off into the distance away from our knowing. It is the resonant sound that keeps its energy as it bounces all around us, slowly draining away but never letting us forget that it’s there.
It is for this that films like deepsouth exist. They are messengers of pain that we are ignorant of and they come to us in the only way that we’ll listen.
People can be bombarded with facts about the harsh realities of HIV and poverty in the South, but all they do is get filed away into the dusty stacks of our brains alongside the million and one other things we heard during our day.
To reach people, you have to tell a story. This is what deepsouth is—a couple of stories told over 72 minutes that play on a truism men and women far brighter than I have known forever: in order to reach people’s minds you have to go through their soul.
At its heart, deepsouth is a series of vignettes focusing on the lives of three men and women who can be seen as representing the length and breadth of the struggle with HIV in the deep south.
Being a Yank myself (albeit one from Cincinnati, a city about as south as Union cities get), I had a very different conception of what it meant be in the “deep south.” As far as this film is concerned—and as a more or less standard definition—the deep south consists of Alabama, Mississippi & Louisiana. In the film, director Lisa Biagiotti follows around people from each of these states.
We’re first introduced to Josh, a twenty-something, openly gay, black man from Mississippi who’s going through issues that millions of his Millenial contemporaries are experiencing as well. He can’t stay stringing together more than one or two semesters at college because his financial aid keeps running out and he’s struggling to figure out his place in both his biological family and his circle of friends who actually perform the functions of family. On top of this he has to deal with the cadre of problems that confront gay men within the often homophobic black communities of the bible belt. Oh yeah, and he was diagnosed with HIV five years ago.
The other two storylines focus on an HIV advocate, Kathie Hiers of Birmingham, AL, and a Louisiana woman named Monica who has been living with HIV for over 28 years and helps run a retreat for HIV positive southerners. Not coincidentally, while Kathie spends 1/3 of the year on the road representing her organization, AIDS Alabama, and trying to increase funding to the rural south, Monica and her partners are struggling to put on their small retreat after having all of their funding cut.
If Josh is emblematic of the stigma and struggles suffered by the LGBT & HIV communities in the deep south, then Kathie & Monica are a bellwether for the lack of funding and awareness of HIV their respective states.
Watching Kathie advocate for changes in the Ryan White Care Act funding streams to accurately reflect the modern demographic makeup of the virus is a lot like watching a son or daughter try to interrupt and talk sense into their feuding parents. She has to know that they won’t be listening to a lot of what she has to say, but she plugs ahead anyway because what else is there to do?
The three main threads of the film interweave nicely and are interspersed with a number of smaller mini-features on other local figures, from a Birmingham pastor who preaches about the demonic properties of homosexuality to a Alabama social worker who drives 30,000 miles every year just handing out pamphlets and visiting clients in the far-flung recesses of the western part of the state where medical care is sparse and HIV is rampant. The natural flow of the film owes itself to the fantastic editing and cinematography that pervade most of deepsouth.
This wasn’t filmed like a documentary, or at least not like the Ken Burns style, sit in front of the camera and cut to archival footage type documentary I’m accustomed to seeing. It never seems like anyone is ever being interviewed in deepsouth.
Even when a subject is alone in a scene, it seems more like a monologue than a conversation, as if the presence of the camera has given everyone in the movie free rein to say whatever little thing happened to be on their minds. This, along with its unobtrusive, yet tight camera work gives the film a very intimate feeling and makes it very easy to forget you are watching a documentary.
Ultimately, deepsouth succeeds in the only thing a piece of art need succeed at: it speaks to people. Documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth or Bowling For Columbine don’t speak to people. They speak at people.
In deepsouth, director Lisa Biagiotti and the entire cast & crew of the film do what southerners do best. They charm you. They cook you a whole mess of food that everybody knows you finish and you end up feeling like you’re going to bust your gut at the end of the night without knowing if it's because you just ate a ½ pound of brisket or because you haven’t stopped laughing for the past hour.
This film isn’t a polemic. It’s not designed to boil blood and rile folks up. No one’s thrown under the bus and there’s no Edward R. Murrow moralistic diatribe at the end. It’s a story and it’s a haunting one at that, which is why it sticks with you.
It’s why I’ll remember it.