Beneath layers of history, poverty and now soaring HIV infections, four Americans redefine traditional Southern values to create their own solutions to survive. ‘deepsouth’ is a documentary about the new American South, and the people who inhabit its most quiet corners. Josh, a college student, seeks the support of an underground gay family hours away from his suffocating Mississippi Delta hometown. With no funds and few resources, Monica and Tammy try to unite reluctant participants at their annual HIV retreat in rural Louisiana. Kathie, an Alabama activist, spends 120 days a year on the road fighting a bureaucracy that continues to ignore the South. (Imdb)
More than 30 years into the AIDS epidemic, a combination of safe-sex education and a new generation of pharmaceuticals has left many Americans convinced that HIV/AIDS is a problem that has been, if not solved, at least addressed. But that’s certainly not true in the American South, which accounts for nearly 50% of all new HIV infections in the United States. From the opening sequence of her haunting and beautiful documentary ‘deepsouth’ the viewer is confronted with both the deeply personal experience of living with HIV in the south and the broader context that ties health, class, race, social justice and family (chosen and otherwise). It’s a film that makes you feel and think, or to paraphrase another reviewer, it’s a movie that talks to you, not at you.
There are plenty of facts to face; one of the characters the film follows is Kathie Hiers, the chief executive officer of AIDS Alabama, who spends a third or more of her life traveling to advocate for funding and attention in the south, where in some states the death rate from AIDS is 60% higher than the national average and almost half of the people who know they are HIV positive are not receiving care. This proportion, Biagiotti points out in the LA Times, is comprable to the percentage of people going without treatment in Ethiopia. But ‘deepsouth’ is grounded in experience more than facts. The filmmakers know that facts are easily manipulated, and always dependent on the context from which they arise and within which they are delivered. What makes ‘deepsouth’ so affecting and such a powerful tool is in the ways it resists narratives of pity and individual medicalization.
It isn’t until about 3/4 of the way into the film that we even hear about AZT or blood cell counts, and even then these things are not shared as a way of defining the people they apply to. They are references to daily living, not necessarily more tragic or heroic than anything else we do to make it through the day.
Even as the film rejects a model of pity and triumph there is plenty here that is tragic and remarkable. I’ll just pick one particularly personal example: the representation of sex educators and educational experience. Two of the people we meet in the film are organizing a retreat that seems to be part support group, part educational experience for folks living with HIV. It may be one of the most accurate and respectful representations of what doing sex education is actually like that I have ever seen on film.
The work is unglamorous, often un- or at least under-paid, and H-A-R-D. So much of the time you put your sweat and heart and soul into it and you don’t make the impact you wanted. Sometimes you fail completely. But you don’t lose focus, and you try to remind yourself that treating people with respect means letting them go at their own pace, and that even if trying isn’t everything, it matters. For those scenes alone ‘deepsouth’ should be required viewing for anyone considering a career in sex education.
The film isn’t yet available for rent or purchase, but I know the filmmaker is planning to tour with it, and I’ll keep posting here when opportunities to screen the film arise. In the meantime you can check out the trailer at the link below. (Cory Silverberg, sexuality.about.com)
Lisa Biagiotti’s documentary Deepsouth is an eye-opening look at the healthcare crisis in the deep south especially in terms of treatment for AIDS/HIV patients. The problem they are facing is that they are not receiving enough funding for various social and educational programs. Biagiotti introduces the viewer to a number of selfless individuals who work tirelessly to assist those in the AIDS/HIV community; Kathie Heirs, CEO of AIDS Alabama, spends nearly most of her year traveling to advocate for funding and attention in the south; and Monica Johnson and Tamela King, two Louisiana community organizers who run HEROES which coordinates an HIV support group and retreat. Biagiotti also focuses on Joshua Alexander from Mississippi, a twenty-four-year-old HIV-positive who is just trying to finish his college education. Joshua is just the type of individual who could benefit from these poorly funded programs.
Biagiotti doesn’t focus on the disease; it’s never really discussed in depth. She focuses solely on the people. By doing so we don’t see someone with HIV we see the individual and we see the pain, confusion, sadness and frustration they face every day. Many individuals interviewed discussed how they wanted to commit suicide, others recount how they lost loved ones, and one woman shares her pain when she discusses the loss of her three-year-old baby who was born with HIV. Family is the most important dynamic that this documentary pushes forward. Coming out can be scary but coming out and being HIV positive can be crushing. You are treated differently. You become ostracized and alone. Johnson and King’s retreat and Alexander’s time with his surrogate father prove the importance of a family bond even if you aren’t related by blood. Having a support structure can go a long way.
Education is also an important tool and Biagiotti sheds light on this through one incredulous but hilarious scene in a Texas high school classroom. A health education teacher is trying to explain sexually transmitted diseases to her students; however, by law contraception or the words associated with it cannot be discussed in the classroom. It’s a state law! We learn that the state of Texas has one of the highest rates of STDs in the country; and you wonder why. Biagiotti’s documentary is educational on the account that it opens viewer’s eyes to what needs to be changed and why it’s important to do so. With the restructuring of healthcare in America this gives a very enlightening look at some of the possible repercussions of this sweeping change.
This is a well made documentary that isn’t preachy or one-sided but is informative, educational and sometimes funny. It simply sheds light on areas that need attention before it becomes a problem for those individuals who truly need it. It shines a spotlight on the individuals who give themselves freely to give the HIV community a voice, a family or a doe-eyed optimistic look at life. It lifts the shroud and allows the viewer to see these people for who they are. Gay or straight. HIV-positive or not. They’re just people like you and me. (http://filmpulse.net/)