Hassan Vawda talks to Lisa Biagiotti about the film deepsouth, an evocative exploration of the rise in HIV in the rural south of the United States.
When it had its European Premier at the Fringe! Film Festival, deepsouth shone bright as one of the highlights of the programme. It is a documentary about the rural South of the United States of America and a topic that has been drowned in a lack of awareness, distance and unfathomable bureaucracy – the continual rise of HIV infections amongst a population that has already been historically forgotten in terms of development and of national wealth.
With two years of subtle organic research of the area, learning the surroundings and most effectively, getting to know the people there, director Lisa Biagiotti scratches the surface and transcends the heavy weight of the issue by tackling it in an incredibly effective way – choreographing a fluid dance between information and art.
After a brief animated chart detailing the areas of historical malnourishment, the film leaves the cold facts and figures behind to hitch a ride on the warmth and humanity of the place through intimate, individual perspectives.
We are with student Joshua through his heartfelt considerations and reactions on his surroundings, we are one of the many ears tireless activist Kathie Heirs engages with, and we take part in the annual retreat in Louisiana for those diagnosed with HIV, which Monica and Tamela passionately organise. By focusing on the warm Southern charm of the individuals rather than focusing on a Southern ‘issue’ we are made to feel the true, honest and horrific impact it has on them without feeling a drop of pity and instead we view them with compassion, hope and respect.
With the film still lingering in my mind days after watching it, I caught up with Lisa Biagiotti to pick and unravel some of her method in creating such an effective documentary.
When you were going around the rural south and conducting your research, how was it met with the general public? Was there a sense of taboo or a lack of awareness, or both?
There was both a lack of awareness and a sense of taboo. But I really needed an education and understanding of the American South too. There was a point where I talked to anyone who would sit and have a conversation with me. So, my entry point into the conversation was not: Hello, my name is Lisa and I’m doing a documentary on HIV in the South.
As an outsider (who had never been to the rural South), I was met with a lot of folded arms. People had no expectations that I would be any different from the mainstream media with their stories of stereotypical Southern characters. But I kept showing up and I listened, I asked questions about what they were thinking and what they were spending their time doing. Trust takes a lot of time and time was my biggest luxury.
What were the main challenges in researching and making the documentary?
Certainly access. But also, figuring out which story we were telling, how to visualize this largely invisible story, and then how to make inertia and isolation not feel so slow and too desperate.
The film is often pigeonholed as an HIV story. But I know that the film challenges people when they ask me: Why did you decide not to show poverty? OR Why is there no one in the film with a T-cell count below 200? (The film has both.) In turn, I ask them what they think poverty or an AIDS diagnosis looks like. But more importantly, questions like these help me gauge what people are really thinking and how far from reality we truly are.
There is a richness that underpins the easy-to-digest but effective narrative thanks to a great deal of of unseen research, as you’ve mentioned. Were there any stories or specific people that you wish you could have included in the narrative?
Almost every scene in deepsouth is based on research. For example, the opening scene is based on Kate Whetten’s work at Duke University, which links childhood trauma with HIV (as a future health outcome). The slavery, poverty and HIV map correlation is based on Bronwen Lichtenstein’s research at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. The ever-popular sex education scene explores the inadequacies of comprehensive sex education in schools, which Megan McLemore of Human Rights Watch has researched extensively. I could go on, but the list is long.
There are so many intersections of HIV not included in the film, but I feel we set the context of a region in crisis. So when Robert Suttle of the SERO Project tells his story about being criminalized by outdated state HIV disclosure laws, it’s an extension of the stigma, discrimination and shame experienced deepsouth. Or when the Latino Commission on AIDS overlays issues of agricultural migration patterns and the citizenship status of Latinos over HIV, we’ve already concretized a foundation of otherness – not necessarily Latino as the other – but homosexuality, HIV status, etc.
The cinematography and art direction of the film is outstanding and very haunting at times. During production were you in the shoes of a journalist or a creative?
Thank you. We had one shoe on each foot. Director of Photography Duy Linh Tu and I were really tired of watching non-fiction video/film that was either exquisitely-shot, but lacked story, or information-laden, with no aesthetic value. Outside of transporting audiences to experience the South, we didn’t have a clear picture of how the documentary might look. But I was very clear about what I didn’t want: expert interviews, statistical plot points and reductive “solutions.” Statistics are less compelling than human lives, and there is no one solution to the tangle of issues at play.
How has the reception been with screenings across America? And did vary from state to state?
These are really not easy topics to talk about – both in and out of the rural American South. Child molestation, rape, slavery, race, sex, sexuality, homophobia, and poverty in rural America. But the reception has been overwhelmingly positive.
People who grew up in other cultures tell me how the health disparities in the US shock them, and that deepsouth could have taken place in their respective countries. I’ve met so many young men with variations of Josh’s story. Students from cities across America come up to me after university screenings and ask how they can get involved because their parents are living with HIV.
deepsouth is technically about HIV, but it’s really about a few stories that show the cracks of a system in freefall. I often say the South is the future because this is what it looks like when social infrastructure erodes. This is what happens when the re-construction blueprints were abandoned, forgotten. That’s what I personally get out of the film.
What will you be working on next? Will it be something equally challenging ?
I am starting to flesh out new projects. One is on schizophrenia, which, like HIV, is highly stigmatized and misunderstood. I want to examine how the disease plays out in families and societies and how it affects creativity, and our own versions of fantasy and reality. It’s a terribly complex issue, but I think it’s about having a place in society, and ultimately, the value or purpose of human life. We have handicapped ramps for people who are physically disabled, and I’m trying to figure out the equivalent for people whose brains are wired a little differently.
I’m also working on a mixed media project about the story of storytelling. It is rooted in one town – the future – and combines a scripted feature film, the building of new news organization – for the issues around the film – and the staging of a play about the town’s past – which is really the future. We’re examining how to tell stories beyond gadgetry and technological advancement. Somehow it will be about the stories we tell ourselves, the ones that get told, the tall tales we want to live and the secret lives we do … but more on that when I’m not so jetlagged!
For more information on deepsouth, visit the film’s official site: http://deepsouthfilm.com/