“If you don’t grow, you die,” Kathie Hiers can be heard saying in “deepsouth,” and though such a statement normally would be accepted at face value, it comes with an asterisk in Lisa Biagiotti’s elegiac examination of those living with HIV below the Mason-Dixon Line where the spread of the virus has been exacerbated by the region’s level of poverty.
While Biagiotti doesn’t weigh down the film in facts and figures, there is a heaviness in the air as she follows three storylines – one involving Hiers, the CEO of AIDS Alabama, one of the few resources those afflicted by the disease can turn to for support and advocacy in the region since few federal dollars come there, another focusing on Tammy King and Monica Johnson, the latter of whom has been living with the disease for 28 years and began a support group at HEROES Community Center in Louisiana, and Josh Alexander, an African-American college student in Mississippi who represents the demographic most currently affected by the disease and looks for a family away from his own, with whom he has an estranged relationship.
Together, the stories tell of a struggle that’s largely been fought in private, not as one might suspect as much because of any overt bigotry, but because economic depression has made minorities of everyone in small Southern towns. As much as Hiers, Johnson and King can be seen inside conference rooms and community centers organizing, their efforts are contrasted with the decay outside their doors of abandoned homes and churches and empty fields that is not unlike the way HIV is expected to ravage the bodies of the people they’re aiming to protect and though both Monica and Josh are living proof that the virus is hardly a death sentence anymore, it’s equally clear that bringing together a community that will raise the profile of the disease will be crucial in stopping its proliferation.
Still, as ideal as the structure is on paper, it’s mildly problematic in practice since Josh’s story begins to drift away from the other two as the film wears on. At first, a potent metaphor for the entire situation as we watch him jogging in place as part of his morning, Josh is the example of a non-activist who is being directly affected by the lack of empathy and support for those living with HIV, but the story of his day-to-day experience doesn’t entirely connect because it lacks the same sense of purpose as Biagiotti’s other two subjects. In particular, time spent with him shooting the breeze with others at a gathering means less with Kathie, who emerges as the film’s star, a no-nonsense warrior who inadvertently best describes her abilities as a coalition builder by recalling a softball team she once managed to keep together for 28 years with little to no financial support that fell apart when she needed to move for her job at AIDS Alabama. Likewise, Monica and Tammy not only demonstrate a similar force of personality, but their story builds towards a natural denouement in the retreat they’ve held for the past 11 years, creating an open forum for those affected by HIV in the area that yields some of the film’s most heartrending moments.
To say that “deepsouth” illuminates this rarely-discussed situation would be an understatement, in either figurative or literal terms. Duy Linh Tu’s often radiant cinematography simultaneously captures the energy of people trying to find a way forward while depicting places trapped in the past, the visual contrast alone able to grab attention for this neglected issue. However, Biagiotti also demonstrates a great deal of restraint in dealing with such sensitive subject matter, operating at a healthy remove and allowing her subjects to speak for themselves. In amplifying their voices, she’s made a film well worth seeking out.
“deepsouth” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It plays once more at Outfest in Los Angeles on July 15th at noon at the Sundance Sunset. More screenings can be found here.