After two years of research, driving 13,000 miles across the nation’s Bible Belt and interviewing more than 400 people, Lisa Biagiotti said she was forced to unlearn a lot of what she thought she knew about HIV/AIDS and the South.
Edisto Fork United Methodist Church hosted the first community viewing in South Carolina of her documentary, “deepsou+h,” on Feb. 5. Biagiotti, an independent multimedia journalist and filmmaker, said “deepsou+h” was birthed out of what she thought “we had a handle on — I thought this was old news, and I was completely shocked at the statics.”
“Your presence represents interest, curiosity and hope,” Sallie Bachman, site director for HopeHealth Edisto, told those gathered to watch the film. “Maybe you came with a question that needs an answer. Maybe you’re seeking inspiration and information about what you can do to make a difference. Or maybe you’re living in silence, hoping that you’ll find courage and a confidant as you face HIV/AIDS in your own life.”
The film follows the lives of Monica Johnson, founder and CEO of HEROES, who has been HIV-positive for 28 years; Kathie Hiers, CEO of AIDS Alabama; and Joshua Alexander, a college student who has been living with HIV for six years.
“Monica’s story is an example of do-it-yourself agencies that are closing due to funding, Kathie’s story brings us out of the South and brings AIDS into national bureaucratic level, and Josh is the story of an individual in search of ‘his family’ and finding a ‘modern family’ in the South,” Biagiotti said.
Johnson, whose son died from HIV complications when he was 3-1/2 years old, says her agency offers engaging after-school services for youths in rural Louisiana to provide “prevention today, so they’re not my clients tomorrow.”
What started out as a white gay man’s disease is now hitting young black gay males, black heterosexual women and Latinos in the Southeastern United States at an alarming rate. “deepsou+h,” which sheds light on the epidemic, was viewed at the 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., and the 2012 United States Conference on AIDS in Las Vegas.
“Over half of the deaths from HIV have occurred in the South, and that’s not acceptable to me,” AIDS Alabama’s Hiers says in the film.
Bachman said the Orangeburg screening of “deepsou+h” was not only to honor National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, but to also draw out community conversation, awareness and compassion.
“Everyone has a status — it’s either positive or negative, and the only way to know is to get tested,” she said. “This film expands our awareness beyond just the five feet in front of us, just beyond the role that we might serve on our job, at our church or in our community.”
Event organizer Patricia Kelly-Wilkes is a 27-year conqueror of the disease.
“My organization, Family Affair, in collaboration with Minority AIDS Council and HopeHealth, does a lot of community outreach,” she said. “We do this from our heart because we have a passion.”
HopeHealth’s Willie Simon moderated a panel discussion featuring Biagiotti; Johnson; Janet Tapp, director of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s Division of STD/HIV/AIDS; and Aaron Bryan, HIV coordinator, S.C. Healthy Schools, DHEC/S.C. Department of Education.
“One of the common myths that we all are aware of is that it’s a gay disease, it happens to ‘those people,’” Tapp said. “We all need to make healthy choices. My generation has seen AIDS rush in like a tidal wave, and I want to be a part of the generation that ushers AIDS and HIV out.”
Bryan said it’s not who you are, but your behavior, that puts you at risk for contracting HIV.
While Biagiotti agreed there needs to be some educational revamping, she challenged the comment.
“Josh, like so many gay and bisexual men and women, may have experiences of childhood trauma, where they are rendered vulnerable and put on that path that I think a lot of young gay or bisexual black men go down, coupled with isolation, ambiguity and suicide,” she said. “This is really about the environmental risks of an infectious disease, much less than what you did on Saturday night or who you are sleeping with.”
Bryan said many factors influence health outcomes, including HIV, STDs and teen pregnancy.
“Poverty is one. It’s the corridor of shame,” he said. “If someone is in a situation where they have to engage in a situation in order to feed their family ... I think it’s going to be really difficult to get folks to focus on just HIV until we address some of these other issues.”
Tapp said the Affordable Care Act should afford South Carolinians greater health care access than what is currently available.
“As more providers come to rural areas, through community health centers, hopefully that will offer some resources for individuals in the South,” she said.
Biagiotti said she hopes that the viewing will “open up the conversation among the LGBT community, Southerners and sex educators,” and teach and give kids information that will protect them.
For more information, visit deepsouthfilm.com or lisabiagiotti.com.
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