Phoebe Carter | Staff Writer
The turn of the 20th century saw the American South marred by growing poverty and the ghosts of slavery. By the turn of the 21st, it had fallen victim to a new villain: the AIDS epidemic.
Lisa Bignotti’s deepsouth, a selection from the Human Rights Watch film festival that documents the AIDS epidemic in the rural American South, highlights the correlation between the disease and poverty. The film was curated by the new student group Cinearts and Kenyon faculty members, and screened at the Gund Gallery Community Foundation Theater last Tuesday night.
Following the screening, Kathleen Tipler, post-doctoral fellow at the Center for the Study of American Democracy and visiting assistant professor of political science David Traven, visiting assistant professor of political science, led a panel discussion of the film. With the highest HIV and AIDS diagnosis rates in the country, the South would seem an unlikely backdrop for an uplifting film about the epidemic. Yet Bignotti’s film succeeds in being both inspirational and honest about the stark reality of AIDS in this disproportionately affected region.
Bignotti’s lens provides three distinct points of view. Joshua Alexander battled depression and an attempted suicide after learning he was HIV positive. Now a college student with an unwavering sense of humor, he joins a family of gay brothers seeking asylum from the judgment of their own families.
Monica Johnson and Tamela King are the founders of Heroes, a support group in Louisiana that hosts an annual HIV retreat sharing the message that “HIV does not define who you are.” Much like Alexander’s underground family, they provide a family for people who have felt misunderstood and rejected by their families and communities. Much of the group’s work addresses poverty as a cause of HIV, rather than directly battling the disease.
Kathie Hier, the ebullient CEO of AIDS Alabama, shows the bureaucratic side of the fight to end HIV/AIDS. She travels tirelessly around the South advocating for governmental support of prevention measures. Hier has a quick smile and a politically incorrect, devil-may-care attitude, but she cares fiercely about the cause. “I lost so many friends to AIDS that I eventually threw out my address book and started over,” she says in the film, showing her deep personal ties to battling the epidemic.
Interestingly, deepsouth is not the typical choice for the human rights film festival. Human rights issues are typically thought in terms of violations of rights, and here raises the question of which rights are being violated and by whom.
The epidemic disproportionately affects individuals below the poverty line, a demographic with little to no voice in politics. The film’s lasting impression is that our government is violating the rights of those in the rural South by neglecting those in poverty, providing little funding for HIV/AIDS relief and politically under-representing the region. As Hiers puts it in the film, “the South gets cheated a lot … We don’t have people speaking up for us.”
Despite the daunting subject matter of this film, Bignotti addressed it with positivity, sharing the stories of people who have not let the insurmountability of their situation destroy their hope. The film provides more positive affirmation than real education on the politics of the cause, but it did capture the notion that while it is hard to effect political change without the proper resources, small communities with few opportunities can still change the social climate surrounding the disease.
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